I don’t mean to shock you, but it’s true: you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. The Brooklyn Magazine map of the best books for every state claims that Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries is the best book of Indiana, but I think the magazine was putting more emphasis on literariness than on sense-of-place when it compiled the list (The Stone Diaries won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).
I read The Stone Diaries because it was pitched as a novel set in Indiana, but I was disappointed by how little of the novel actually takes place there. The novel is set mainly in Canada, with a few scenes in Indiana and a few more in The Orkneys. More importantly, aside from the scenes in Scotland, setting was mostly irrelevent in this story. It could have taken place anywhere: place was definitely not a third character in the story. I did not walk away from the book feeling like I knew any more about Indiana than I did when I started reading.
That being said, as I begin my second Indiana novel and quarries are mentioned in the opening pages, perhaps I’m not giving The Stone Diaries enough credit for capturing Indiana. In the opening scene of Shield’s novel, we are introduced to Mercy Stone Goodwill, the mother of the novel’s protagonist, Daisy, and I immediately tied Mercy’s maiden name to the book’s title.
Yet the stone of the story is more than the Stone lineage carried through Mercy, and as I read more from Indiana, it seems stone is a part of Indiana as well. Stone is a metaphor used throughout The Stone Diaries, from Daisy’s quarry-man-turned-stone-carver father who builds a replica of a Great Pyramid in his back yard, to her paleobotanist niece who searches for fossils: “Life turned to stone.” Fossils. Like statues. Like the words engraved on a tombstone. Life turned to stone.
Rock runs throughout the book — a fictitious autobiography — in nearly every chapter. The novel, and its structure, seems to be making a point about the impossibility of shoving the whole of one person’s life into finite words, and the difficulties inherent in penning an autobiography. Shields is clever with her narrative choices, sometimes naming the person who’s perspective we are hearing, sometimes telling the story through letters to Daisy, and sometimes narrating through an omnicisient narrator whose identity is unclear, but who seems to be Daisy herself.
The way Shields executes changes in point of view is brilliant because she demonstrates how unattainable it is to share the full story of a life, and to share it accurately. From Daisy’s friends we hear different opinions than we do from her children or former lovers. And Daisy herself — what was her perspective? It’s difficult to know, but Shields certainly gives clues that help you form a theory.
While the book didn’t blow me away, and I’m still thinking about the significance of stone throughout it, there was a genius in the way Sheilds ended the novel, sharing the detritus of Daisy’s life, and how much the mundane odds and ends we leave can tell about us.
I think part of the cleverness of the title, along with the way Shields demonstrates the difficulties of sharing or knowing a person’s true story, is a play on the expression, “written in stone.” When a biography is set on paper, with specific perpectives shared and words carefully chosen, the written, indelible story persists long after the person is gone, like a statue carved of stone.
If you have a favorite book set in Indiana and written by an Indiana author, please let me know in the comments! I’m currently reading The Bright Forever by Lee Martin, and I am getting a good feel for Indiana from it.
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