Rosemary Sullivan does a superb job of balancing her portrait of the young Margaret Atwood in her childhood, young adulthood and early career with a solid critical assessment of the burgeoning Canadian literary scene and canon. Sullivan also ably dovetails Atwood’s place in the Canadian literary realm, as well as Atwood’s precocious and always growing potential at that point to influence and shape it. Sullivan also captures Atwood’s own sense of balance, grounded in a loving and supportive upbringing, between personal and emotional health, artistic exploration and integrity, and professionalism. Here is an excerpt that expresses it well:
“Margaret made a distinction: personally, art was a vocation, a gift, which required all her imagination and commitment. But publicly, it was also a profession, with rights and responsibilities. Ironically, the romantic notion of the artist confronting demons alone in an attic freed society of any responsibility for art. The artist suffered, by definition, and was placeless in a culture where he or she had no social role. Margaret was beginning to see the artist as completely different from the romantic cliche. The artist was meant to actively shape society, and not be its victim. When the artist actually spoke out, though, society often felt threatened.”
Atwood is and continues to be engaged and impressive (for example, the Globe and Mail just named her Canada’s Nation Builder of the Decade in Arts, and she tweets voraciously at www.twitter.com/MargaretAtwood), and Sullivan is impressive in her portraiture and context setting. Even if one does not particularly care for Atwood’s works (although there is a range of genres and subject to please most omnivorous readers) or politics, “The Red Shoes” is still an absorbing and inspiring examination of a life and a calling well, healthily, optimistically and fiercely lived.
The Red Shoes is one of the Canadian non-fiction titles I’ve recommended for Canada Reads 2012: True Stories. If you’d like to support this book as a possible Canada Reads finalist, you can vote for it here, as well as perusing some other great recommendations.