When Carol Bly died at the end of 2007, obituaries and speakers at her memorial referred to her as a “lion of Minnesota letters” and said “one of the heavy lifters is gone.” Carol Bly was not just an important writer—she was a presence, a force to be reckoned with, a voice being scathingly funny about the emperor’s missing clothes. In Minnesota, many will remember that voice calling on writers not to be slick, to go deeper, to take on the big ones.
Carol Bly wrote short stories that had weight, complexity, and wit. She was also a prolific writer of essays, a cultural critic, an ethicist, and, in her own terms, “a gadfly.” Being that outspoken and opinionated can startle Minnesotans. She was also a teacher of writing at universities, summer programs, the Loft, in her own dining room, and by e-mail. Before I met her in a summer class, I was vaguely aware that some people found her intimidating, even alarming. What I found was a dedicated teacher, very kind, and tremendous fun.
“Every human being deserves the chance to write,” she said. “To form a philosophy, and not be thrown off balance by change and chance.”
Years later, we worked together on several classes, some in northern Minnesota, in a ratty geodesic dome filled with Early Group Home furniture. She liked the place, chatted up the sled dogs, dug a snow cave—and worked hard. Anything students wrote at night, they’d get back in the morning. She got up at 5 to read them, adding thoughtful, encouraging notes and questions. By 7 everyone was up, even the Night People—no one wanted to miss any of the wild, free talk. There was more robust laughter before breakfast any morning than most women hear in a month.
“Affection for the world” was a quality she admired in writing, and in life. She had it in spades. She built outhouses, studied Icelandic, knit loud socks, took up the violin in her fifties, and planted and tended hundreds of baby oaks for her grandchildren (not conifers—global warming would do them in).
Carol Bly chose writing early, but her public career didn’t start until she was almost fifty. From 1955 to 1978, in Madison, Minnesota, where the Bly farm was a center of poetry and politics, she decided to bring up the children—but she kept notebooks. When Carol and Robert Bly divorced, she moved to Sturgeon Lake and Saint Paul and began serious writing. Two of her ambitions, a story in The New Yorker and a book with Harper & Row, were soon achieved with Last of the Gold Star Mothers (1979) and Letters from the Country (1981). Her collections of short stories (1985, 1991) were compared to those of Chekhov, Camus, and Flannery O’Connor.
She was often referred to by critics (New Yorkers, often) as a writer of the rural Midwest, but many of her best stories are located in Saint Paul. A gifted violin teacher fends off the dopers and small-time dealers on her lawn. Eleanor Gummel from the farm encounters clueless support groups. Someplace in the south suburbs a fictional chemical plant produces nerve gas, and the genial CEO knows all the demonstrators by name.
The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart’s Truth into Literature (1990) is her guide for short story writers and a statement of her standards for fiction. Leaving out ethical concerns, she says, is as repressive as leaving out sex would be. Her hope was to help new writers replace reflexive cynicism and “general grunge” with “overall affection and specific wrath.”
Fiction, she claimed, is three thousand times harder to write than nonfiction—you need to eat beef when working on plot. She wrote fiction, she said, because people touched her, and nonfiction because the world was too mean, needed fixing up. She wrote a lot of nonfiction. In recent years, Carol Bly took on bad corporations and the Bush administration in a series of pamphlets. A thankless task, but Cynthia Loveland, her friend and publishing partner (Bly and Loveland Press.com), says, “We had so much fun. Carol was the funniest woman I ever met.”
Meanwhile, Carol Bly had a novel she had been working at for years; she was reading proofs right up to her death from cancer. Northern Minnesota is the scene this time, and she’s got us down with dead accuracy—lots of satire, no cheap shots. It’s full of plot and characters, including a foul-mouthed organist and some bears. It’s a richly comic, unnerving book about not ignoring evil, taking action, even if imperfect.
A first novel at seventy-seven. Shelter Half was published six months after her death. Critics admired its combination of “intelligence and gusto” and some “hilarious moral farce.” Oprah Winfrey’s magazine made it a summer reading pick. People reading on beaches will get fine entertainment, but perhaps “more truth, and more surprising truth” than they expect.
A young woman’s body lay undisturbed for a week in mid-November.
So begins Shelter Half, a novel about a few people in a northern Minnesota town. Some of them—the town cop, the doctor, and a young couple in love—are smart enough to recognize cruelty that comes at them from huge organizations far outside the town limits. They are not chicken. They don’t duck. If their nation and their world look grisly, they still do what they can for love and justice. They look out for one another. Available at your local bookstore or at holycowpress.org for $15.95.