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June 15, 2014

Blanche Howard

memoirI was sad today to hear the news of Blanche Howard’s death at the age of 90. I knew Howard best through her extraordinary collection of letters with Carol Shields, which I read for the first time in a hammock in 2007, and a second time a few years later. I’d also read her novel, Penelope’s Way, and Celibate Season, the collaborative novel she published with Shields in the 1990s. When she and Shields began corresponding in the 1970s, it was actually Howard who’d been the most experienced writer of the two, generously providing the novice Shields with advice as the latter embarked upon the publication of her first book. An extraordinary friendship would grow between the two of them, and Howard’s characteristic generosity continued as she shared their letters with readers in A Memoir of Friendship. (Generosity was a trait both friends had in common.) The letters are a remarkable documentation of the course of women’s lives–the joys and trials of motherhood, the better and worse of marriage, the pains and injustice of aging. Their discussions of feminism and politics were illuminating and important. And so too their stories of the writing life.

Shields was a very special writer, and entirely deserving of her good fortune, but she did strike literary gold with The Stone Diaries, which took the world by storm and everything she touched ever after seemed to turn to gold. This was not necessarily always going to be her destiny (though, as a reader of the letters will note, her success did not seem to change her a bit). Howard, on the other hand, had more of a struggle, starting off strong with her novels in the 1970s, then her books went out of print, and while she never stopped writing, it would be years before her next book was published (in addition to A Celibate Season). She self-published an e-book in 2010.

This is a far more typical story than Shields’, a familiar trajectory for most writers who do not go on to win the Pulitzer. Howard’s story was a lesson in endurance, persistence, and optimism. In writing for the love of it. In growing old but staying sharp, learning and growing all the while. (It’s a lesson in courage too–Howard bore loss of her husband after years of Alzheimer’s Disease and the demands of his caregiving.) In our society, we’re not always interested in hearing from women later in their lives, as Howard’s failure to secure a publishing contract would attest. It’s a difficult world out there, but it’s even harder for a woman with grey hair. Hard work is not always necessarily rewarded.

And yet, there is something in the struggle, which is what I learned from Howard. This is what life is after all. To reach but never quite make it. The striving is an achievement though, and it shapes a life, makes it rich with experience and vision. It is certainly not an ordinary life. Hers was a way of truly being in the world, and I so admire that. It’s so important for us to have these kind of examples of the kind of women we might grow to be, women with strength, and dignity. A life rich in friendship. Truly, she made a mark on the world, and her loss will be felt by her readers and the people who knew her.

(Thanks to Allyson Latta who shared the news of Howard’s death, as well as an essay she’d written called The Stories We Tell.)

8 thoughts on “Blanche Howard”

  1. theresa says:

    This is a lovely and generous piece about a writer who deserve(d) to be better known than she was — or is. I loved the Letters for the women’s strong friendship and for the wonderful quotidian detail and was sad when the balance shifted after The Stone Diaries, though to Carol S’s credit, she was as supportive and deeply respectful as ever. I think I’ll read those letters again. (I wonder if we’ll have such portraits of friendship in the future? Do people honestly save emails the way they saved actual letters?)

  2. Kerry, I can tell you as Blanche’s daughter that you have beautifully captured the essence of my mother’s struggle and perseverance in being and remaining a writer to the end of her days. I have in hand a huge box containing all of her published materials beginning with a short story published in 1956 in Maclean’s magazine and on her computer table were works in progress at the time of her passing. I believe she knew her time was at an end when she could no longer muster the energy to write each day. She has left us an inspiring and enduring legacy. Allison

  3. Thank you for this fine piece, Kerry. Blanche was indeed an inspiration in so many ways. And, in the matter of persevering with her writing, I’ve had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of a typically wise and witty and “up to the minute” novel that she finished writing not much more than a year ago. She was so very kind, and supportive of other writers, too.

  4. Heidi says:

    This is beautiful, Kerry. I read A Celibate Season in quite a lonely season of my life, and I remember it vividly as one of my few companions (along with a whole bunch of other books). And then I read the letters at some point that I cannot remember at all, which is odd. It’s so true, about hers being the more typical and uncelebrated story. Thanks for celebrating.

  5. Kerry, what a lovely tribute to Blanche. While I never had the pleasure of meeting Blanche in person, I’ve stayed in touch with her and her daughter Allison since copyediting “A Memoir of Friendship,” which they co-edited. I have in my files a copy of Blanche’s last manuscript, finished within the past year or two, a testament to her talent and commitment to writing even in her final years. As recently as last year she contributed a chapter to a published collaborative mystery novel titled “At the Edge.”

    She wrote another essay for my website last fall, one that’s inspiring to writers (at least it inspires me): “Granting Ourselves Permission to Write.” It’s poignant, especially now, reflecting as it does on her writing life and how, despite its ups and downs, she would not have wanted any other. I hope you don’t mind my sharing the link here:

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Allyson, and everyone for your warm response to this post! I think I appreciate how honest Howard was about her experience–so many authors deal with the downs as well as the ups, but go to great pains to keep them quiet. Mustn’t diminish our public profiles. Her candour is really appreciated.

  6. Christine McLeod says:

    Thank-you Kerry, Allison & everyone else paying tribute to Blanche Howard. I first wrote to Blanche in 2007 after reading, & loving, “Memoir”. It was such a humane heart-warming book! It was especially welcome reading in the midst of the confusing post-modern critiques of Carol Shields’ work I was studying at that time. Blanche & I then began yearly Christmas correspondence, mainly by email. So it was a sad shock when my most recent missive to her was “address rejected”. A web-search led to “Pickle Me This”. I can only amplify the praise already voiced here. Blanche was a warm, considerate, humorous & incisive correspondent. Her determination to continue writing, despite publishing setbacks, sets a fine example to everyone – to continue doing whatever brings meaning to our lives unto the end. it was a true privilege to have been in touch with such a wonderful woman.

  7. J.E. Hewitt says:

    Christine, I had a similar experience. I had the good fortune to read “Memoir” just as I began to take my writing seriously again after a long hiatus. I was so taken with their friendship and the intimate look into their lives and feelings about their work and families, so much so that I felt these women became my friends too. I wouldn’t usually write to an author – they’re too famous! too busy! but I wrote to Blanche to tell her how much I appreciated the book and to my surprise she wrote right back. We communicated over the last few years and she has been a major source of inspiration to me. What Kerry said exactly reflects my feelings about this wonderful person. It is a great testimony to Blanche’s writing that her character came across so distinctly in her emails. She was a role model in her perseverance and her youthful outlook on life.
    I was ill this year and did not communicate with Blanche for some months … so this news is fresh to me. I am so saddened to know that I can’t email Blanche and give her my latest news and hear her stories about the folks and fun at her retirement home.
    Thank you Kerry for writing this piece which broke the news to me. She will be missed.

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