Friday, November 16, 2007

The Staircase Letters: An Extraordinary Friendship at the End of Life by Arthur Motyer with Elma Gerwin and Carol Shields

Completion Date: September 2007
Pages: 160
Publication Year: 2007 (Random House Canada)
Received from Random House in 2007.

Reason for Reading: I chose to read this book mostly for the fact that Carol Shields had something to do with it, and she is one of my favourite Canadian authors, who sadly passed away.
Full of the magic of everyday life in the shadow of death–chickens must be cooked for dinner parties, and grandson’s questions about God must be answered!–The Staircase Letters is a moving and profound story of friendship and facing the end of life.

When Elma Gerwin found out in 2001 at the age of 61 that she had cancer, she reached out to two coasts and to two old friends. One was Arthur Motyer, novelist and teacher, and Elma’s university professor from forty years before, and the other was acclaimed novelist Carol Shields, who was facing her own battle with cancer.

Years later, Arthur is the only survivor. Still contemplating how Elma’s and Carol’s correspondence affected him, he has gracefully brought the letters together and interspersed them with literary references and poetry. As both women’s illnesses progress, they compare notes on the ups and downs of living with cancer–the joy when Elma is told one area is cancer-free, followed quickly by the terrible news that the cancer has spread; the delight in having family near, while the thought of saying goodbye seems impossible. The advice they give each other–from how to approach treatments to how to get to sleep at night–is heartfelt, warm and often leavened with humour.

As Carol and Elma contemplate what happiness is and how one makes a “good death,” 74-year-old Arthur, feeling inadequate in the face of such fundamental questions, discovers that he is exactly where he should be. In The Staircase Letters, the reader catches a rare and touching glimpse of the lives of three extraordinary people–two facing death and one left behind.
I was very surprised by this book. Carol Shields passed away a while ago now, so I did not really think that there would be any more books pertaining to her. At least not right away. I actually did not even pay attention to the premise of the book or who the other people involved with it were, I just wanted something new from Carol Shields. I read Carol Shields for the first time in my last year of high school. If I remember correctly, there was a sale on books by Canadian authors at a local bookstore, and the books were about half off, so I bought a few authors that I have never read before. Carol Shields was one such author. That year I remember reading for sure The Stone Diaries, Larry's Party, and Unless. I have since read all of her novels and poetry.

In The Staircase Letters, Arthur Motyer has published emails from himself, Elma Gerwin, and Carol Shields. Elma and Carol were both very sick, and would soon write their last emails. Arthur was relatively healthy and would outlive both of them. He never actually met Carol before. Elma was one of his students from years gone by, and it was her that brought Carol into the conversations. The book is really rather short, but in the pages, Arthur shows what Carol and Elma thought about death, what was important for them to discuss as they neared the end, and he wrote around it to fill in the details. He told his thoughts on a subject that he really did not fully understand because he was not going through it, and he also filled the reader in on who these people were. I had never heard of Elma Gerwin before, but she seems like she was a very interesting person.

I think if Carol Shields had to 'come back from the dead' to have a new book, then this was a good attempt. I am glad that I took a chance on this book. There is another book by Carol Shields that came out recently. It is a book of letters, I think, but I did not buy it when it came out, and I did not write the title down, so for some reason I cannot track down the book! One of these days it will come to me!

To learn more about this book, head on over to Random House.


  1. Reading your review gave me chills. Shields is a favorite of mine too.

  2. Oh, that sounds amazing, it really does.

  3. It was a good idea, I thought.


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