Books

CRIES AND WHISPERS

SUE FERGUSON April 28 2003
Books

CRIES AND WHISPERS

SUE FERGUSON April 28 2003

CRIES AND WHISPERS

Books

There’s some fine handiwork in Dropped Threads 2, another anthology of women’s intimate reflections

SUE FERGUSON

I OPENED Dropped Threads 2 with some trepidation. The subtitle to Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson’s second anthology of personal reflections from Canadian women is More of What We Aren’t Told. But since the late 1960s, feminists have been dragging housework, feelings, relationships, child care, menstruation and menopause out of the closet, and handling them with the seriousness they deserve in academic research, books, TV talk shows, newspapers and magazines. That the task of detailing such intimate subjects still falls to women is disappointing. What’s more, focusing on them tends to invite mawkish, formulaic writing: woman in trouble (bad relationship, bad health, bad luck, but mostly bad relationship) struggles to make sense of things and, in the end, finds redemption.

Reading on, however, I was heartened to discover something more nuanced. The

three dozen contributors (who include Maclean’s Editor at Large Ann Dowsett Johnston) range from the familiar (Jane Urquhart, Shelagh Rogers, Flora MacDonald) to the relatively unknown (Lisa Majeau Gordon, C.J. Papoutsis, Carole Sabiston). Almost all of them write in an unsentimental voice. Before I could work up much agitation over epiphanic resolutions, there was Mary Jane Copps’s powerful account of how she and her siblings could neither understand nor escape the reckless acts of a damaged, alcoholic mother. And just when I started to squirm at yet another story about husbands, babies or mothers (as if that’s all women are interested in), Marianne Brandis offered a contemplation of single life, having, as she puts it, “360 degrees all to myself.” Other pieces tackle race, sexuality, class, religion and disability. But rather than the didactic treatises one might expect, the prose

is fresh and imaginative. For professor and poet Karen Houle, lesbianism is like “sliding the red balls, all at once, to the other side of the abacus. A satisfying, clacking sound— the sound of emphasis falling differently.” Barbara Defago, a former Vancouver-area therapist undergoing cancer treatment, suggests her blighted breast is like the bad sister, “out there letting her presence be known, misbehaving.” And reflecting on anti-Semitism, “the shard of glass in the pale custard of Toronto society,” columnist Michele Landsberg recounts with wry, simmering indignation her Grade One music teacher insisting she mouth the words to the songs because “it was well known that Jews could not carry a tune.”

The book’s broad scope of stories and perspectives is intentional. The first volume —published in 2001 and, with an astonishing 80,000 copies sold, a fixture on bestseller lists for more than a year—showcased “predominantly middle-class, Caucasian women,” says Anderson. To correct that bias and open the process up to women whose work they didn’t know, she and Shields, among other things, solicited contributions for Dropped Threads 2 on the Internet. In just two weeks, more than 100 women responded. Seven of them made the final cut.

While some writers dish out lighter fare (Elizabeth Hay’s “Ten Beauty Tips You Never Asked For” and Papoutsis’s “They Didn’t Come with Instructions,” for example), readers should prepare for a generally sober journey. Many stories are what Anderson calls “messages from survivors”—familiar territory to both editors. Shields, whose novel, Unless, is in the running for Britain’s Orange Prize, is very ill with breast cancer, diagnosed in 1998. Anderson, a communications consultant who was Shields’s colleague at the University of Manitoba for many years, lost a seven-year-old daughter, her first husband and a young niece to cancer.

“What we aren’t told” is a theme that can be endlessly mined. But the editors aren’t yet planning Dropped Threads 3—although they’ve already received a handful of unsolicited submissions. It was the overwhelming response to the first book, says Anderson, that led them to compile the second. And they’re taking a wait-and-see approach now. “It’s sort of like sending a child out in the world,” she says. “It’ll go where it needs to go, and if it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s OK too.” My guess is, this child has legs. fJH