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Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren’t Told

by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson, eds.

The first Dropped Threads anthology, the brainchild of Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson, was a Canadian publishing phenomenon. Book clubs across the country seized on the collection of true stories about what women aren’t told about life. Friends and relations embraced it as the perfect gift for Mother’s Day, Christmas, or birthdays. Public events sprang up around it. The book reached the top of national charts, and it has stayed on bestseller lists across the country for nearly two years.

Those stories have now spawned more stories. Shields and Anderson hardly needed to send out a call for fresh submissions – they flowed in regardless. As before, the contributors to Dropped Threads 2 run the gamut from some of Canada’s foremost writers to women never before published. Alongside the likes of Susan Swan, Michele Landsberg, Sandra Martin, and Sandra Birdsell are teachers, mothers, painters, and civil servants. Once again, it is difficult to tell the professionals from the novices – a tribute to the skills and high standards of the editors, but also to the writers’ response to the challenge. Each voice is distinctive, yet most share a stance: unsentimental, clear-eyed, compassionate but unflinching.

Dropped Threads 2 is as good as its predecessor, sometimes even better. Jane Urquhart’s opening essay is alone worth the price of the book. It is a heart-stopping story of the long night in which she lost her young husband, and the aftermath, as she sought and found comfort for an unbearable anguish. She was 24.

Though this book will find its way onto many bedside tables, it is no aid to sleep. The images persist in the darkness, meaning spreading around them like rings around a stone dropped into water. Writes Pamela Mala Sinha, “I know why I’m writing this now. This story no longer belongs only to me. It’s yours now, too.” That’s true. And many of the stories are about loss and pain. The experiences these women share include rape, abandonment, post-partum depression, cancer. Flora MacDonald describes the blow of “being dismissed” from active politics as an MP and a cabinet minister and the rich rewards of involving herself in the heroic lives of ordinary women in other countries.

Some pieces harken back to childhoods haunted by disappointment, violence, the Depression. But others, like Elizabeth Hay’s “Ten Beauty Tips You Never Asked For,” are wryly funny (Rule # 6, regarding skin creams: Nothing works). What all of them have in common is candour. Each writer extends to us the extraordinary privilege of intimacy.

In her introduction, Adrienne Clarkson refers to Freud’s famous bafflement on the subject of what a woman wants as probably the greatest documented example “of one sex not listening to the other.” Dropped Threads 2 is one sex listening closely to itself. But men too may find in this book an opportunity to be privy to an ongoing conversation. They’ll recognize themselves here, as presences and absences, beloved or resented. The struggles of the writers to come to terms with a loss of belief in male privilege will surely resonate with their own.

The gentle, intelligent shaping presence of Carol Shields can be felt throughout these pages. Many stories are intensified by the knowledge that she is fighting breast cancer for her life. The Dropped Threads anthologies have become, as she notes in her afterword, an ongoing project. Long may they continue.