With The Stone Diaries, Canadian author Carol Shields has undertaken a formidable task—to relate a woman’s very ordinary life in a way that will engage the reader, while constantly calling into question the very effort itself. Thus, the protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Hoad Flett, becomes the means by which the author explores the concept of autobiography and the inherent difficulties encountered when trying to recount a life accurately.
The novel begins in 1905 with the unexpected birth of the protagonist, Daisy, to mild-mannered Canadian quarrier Cuyler Goodwill and his simple, portly wife, Mercy. Mercy was reared in the Stonewall Orphans Home in Manitoba, Canada; hence the origin of her maiden name, Stone, the name given to all the children whose parentage was unknown. Not much is known about Mercy except that she lived a quiet life, becoming housekeeper for the orphanage by the time she turned twenty. She was also an excellent cook, who unfortunately grew to immense proportions. Her great bulk stood in contrast to the figure of her husband, Cuyler, a slight but sinewy man who was employed at the Stonewall Quarries when he met and became inexplicably smitten with Mercy.
After their marriage in 1903, the couple had moved to the village of Tyndall, thirty miles away, where Cuyler had a job in the new quarry. Two years passed contentedly enough, with kindly neighbor Clarentine Flett befriending the young and bewildered Mercy. Clarentine, wife of Magnus and mother of three grown sons, delighted in the simple companionship she shared with her newlywed neighbor, presenting her with small gifts, among them a cookbook that Mercy especially prized. Unfortunately, Mercy had begun to take ill, suffering from what she, in her ignorance, thought to be stomach trouble. To her surprise and dismay, she proceeds to give birth to Daisy one hot day, alone in her kitchen, where an elderly Jewish peddler and Clarentine find her too late to save her life.
Thus Daisy enters the world just as her orphaned mother exits it. Poor, confused Cuyler gives her over to the care of Clarentine, who has just decided to leave her husband. She takes Daisy with her to live with her oldest son, Barker, a botany professor at Wesley College in Winnipeg. Daisy lives there with “Aunt” Clarentine and “Uncle” Barker until the age of eleven, when Clarentine is struck and killed by a bicyclist. Upon Clarentine’s untimely death in 1916, the bookish and introspective Barker contacts Daisy’s father. Cuyler has just accepted a new job in Bloomington, Indiana, with the Indiana Limestone Company, and he and Daisy travel by train together to their new home, where Daisy grows to adulthood.
In 1927, at age twenty-two, Daisy marries a young man of good family, Harold A. Hoad, who proves to be an alcoholic. The two embark on their honeymoon, spending eight days aboard an ocean liner before arriving in France. Throughout, Harold is constantly drunk, except for the ocean crossing, when he is deathly seasick. At a small French village where they stop to spend the night, Harold falls to his death, drunk, from the window of their hotel room, leaving Daisy alone and still a virgin. She returns home, where she lives with her father and his new wife, Maria Faraci, whom Cuyler met while on a trip to Italy to seek out good stone carvers.
In 1936, Daisy decides to take a trip to Canada and call on her Uncle Barker, with whom she corresponded faithfully since Clarentine’s death. Upon first sight, the two fall in love, and they are married instantly, despite the age disparity of some twenty years. The two have three children: Alice, Warren, and Joan. They maintain a beautiful home in Ottawa, Ontario, on a triple lot where Daisy has an immense garden. Clarentine loved flowers and instilled this love in not only Barker, a botanist, but also Daisy. In fact, when Barker dies in 1955, Daisy takes over his job of columnist for the local paper, writing about gardening under the name of Mrs. Green Thumb. Sadly, Daisy’s father, Cuyler, dies the same year.
From 1955 to 1964, the newspaper column is Daisy’s life. During this same time, Daisy sees her three children off to college. Her niece Beverly, who had served in World War II as a WREN, comes to live with Daisy when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Beverly gives birth to a daughter, Victoria, whom Daisy takes under her wing much as Clarentine did her. Daisy’s contented life comes to a dead halt when she is peremptorily replaced on the newspaper by another columnist. She then falls into a deep depression. In 1967, Daisy retires and moves to a condominium in Florida, near the homes of her two lifelong friends Fraidy Hoyt and Beans Anthony.
On a whim, in 1977, at age...
(The entire section is 1943 words.)