Hearts of Stone: Quarrying the Canadian Shield in Recent Canadian Women's Writing

By Stovel, Nora Foster | International Fiction Review, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Hearts of Stone: Quarrying the Canadian Shield in Recent Canadian Women's Writing


Stovel, Nora Foster, International Fiction Review


Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart. William Butler Yeats, "Easter 1916"

Take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh!

Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock

Recent Canadian women writers quarry the human heart, but find stone where flesh should be. The Canadian Shield--a Precambrian rock formation that composes nearly half the Canadian landmass, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean through the prairie provinces and from the Arctic Ocean to the United States and beyond--provides a literal landscape and a rich lode of metaphor for writers to mine. Canadian women novelists employ stone as a central symbol of psychic ossification, emotive memorializing, or narrative symbolism. From the ancient Rosetta stone to the fabulous philosopher's stone, rock has been man's method of inscribing his story--like fossils embedded in limestone, history's shorthand. Roseann Runte argues, in "Reading Stones: Travels to and in Canada," that writers want to "interpret the rocks themselves, to read their own oracular messages in the land." (1) Limestone, so rich with fossils--the traces of prehistoric plants and animals embedded in the sedimentary rock--provides symbols for writers like Carol Shields in her Stone Diaries. Thus, fossils have become a metaphor for fiction, as novelists have become paleontologists.

Isabel Huggan views stones as stories: "Dry in the sand, the stones were silent as old bones, but wet, they told stories." (2) Huggan sees fossils as fictions: "Like fossils set in limestone, words impress themselves on paper, syllables shrinking history into a legible construct. Real fossils are time's shorthand, abbreviated geology" (25).

Jane Urquhart employs fossils as a symbol of history in her 1993 novel Away, for the very stones underfoot are "filled with etched memories of previous life forms." (3) As Anne Compton states, "In any landscape, the narratives of the lives lived there are fossilized in the landscape." (4) Urquhart frames her narrative with the rock quarry that will engulf Esther O'Malley Robertson's family home at Loughbreeze Beach on the shores of the Great Lakes. At the beginning, "Esther thinks of the million-year-old fossils that decorate these stones and how the limestone record of their extermination has brought about the demise of her own landscape, the enormous hole in the earth" (20-21). At the conclusion, "the fossilized narratives of ancient migrations are crushed into powder" (356) by machines that fragment the land and carry away its history in the form of stone.

In Urquhart's 2001 novel, The Stone Carvers, artisan Klara Becker, disguised as a man, assists Canadian sculptor Walter Allward in carving the names of the fallen, including her lost lover, Eamon, into the Canadian First World War Monument at Vimy, France, like fossils in the rock. Urquhart quotes Walter Allward's statement as an epigraph to The Stone Carvers: "I have been eating and sleeping stone for so long it has become an obsession with me." (5) The marble monument, "a memorial to grief ... and a prayer for peace" (377), is "surmounted by an enormous stone woman who is hooded and draped in the manner of a medieval mourner" (1), recalling Margaret Laurence's stone angel.

Joy Kogawa, in her 1981 novel Obasan, dedicated to the Issei, the first generation of Japanese immigrants to Canada, employs this quotation from Revelations as her epigraph: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna and will give him a white stone and in the stone a new name written ..." (2:17). (6) In her poetic prologue, the sound of silence is symbolized by stone. "In the beginning was the word," it is written in Genesis, but the narrator writes, "The word is stone.... I hate the stone.... Unless the stone bursts with telling ... there is in my life no living word." In the concluding chapter, however, Naomi Nakane accepts the long silence of her mother: "My loved ones, rest in your world of stone" (246). …

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