The last few days a bad cold meant I could barely hold my head up, let alone sit at my desk. But I could read, and luckily I was in the middle of Rosemary Sulivan’s fascinating biography on Margaret Atwood’s early years: The Red Shoes (1998).
I have always been ambivalent about Atwood and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because by the time I was sentient in the 1990s she was already part of Canada’s “Literary Establishment.” I tend to shun anything that people or the media tell me I have to read. Such has been the case with the Harry Potter books (which I did end up enjoying), the Twilight series (still haven’t read), and any of Oprah’s Book Club choices.
When I was fourteen I had a friend who idolized Atwood – just devoured her fiction. She finally convinced me to read Cat’s Eye. I don’t remember finishing it. In fact, I don’t remember anything about it. I loved lots of other CanLit authors in the canon – Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy – but skipped over the “reigning queen” (as some have called her, much to her dismay).
Fast forward to 2001 when as part of my Canadian Studies degree at McGill I took the requisite CanLit 100 course. Now I was nineteen and my main worry was arriving on time for that lecture, which was a stern walk uphill from my Spanish class on Sherbrooke St. Dr. Robert Lecker did not tolerate lateness, so I would arrive breathless and sweaty from my mad dash. Again I was faced with Atwood’s work, this time Surfacing. Again I don’t remember much about that experience other than I learned to pick my class schedule based on campus geography.
I don’t know exactly how I got Sullivan’s biography… like all things Atwood in my life there is a vagueness. I imagine I picked it up at a secondhand bookstore or a bargain bin at one of the big box stores sometime between 2000 and 2005. I found it again last summer stored in my parents’ garage when I Uhauled my past lives to Edmonton.
Last month I read James King’s biography of Canadian publishing icon Jack McClelland. There were some interesting tidbits about many of my favourite authors, and several about Atwood (her first book signing was in The Bay’s men’s underwear department in Edmonton?!). Sometimes a project leads you into the next project, and sometimes a book pushes you to another title. In this case, it pushed me toward The Red Shoes, which just happened to be next to it in the biography cluster on my bookshelf.
And I’m glad it did. It gave me a great appreciation for the creative, cultural, and political landscape writers – especially women – encountered in Canada and the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1970s. It also made me appreciate Atwood’s role in the changes of that era, just by doing what felt right to her and her writing life. While she struggled with some of those choices, pushing against ideas of womanhood (foisted on her from all directions) as well as what a woman “Writer”should be like (mostly tragic, apparently), I get the sense she’s always done things her way.
Today, at 71, she is among the Twitterati and I was a little ambivalent about following her at first. But not anymore. I realize that all Canadian writers follow her, and while her (not red) shoes may be big and her shadow large, she also paved the way for professional women writers to create, make a living, have families, and even bake a cookie or two.