The Lamp in the Mausoleum

In the imagination of most Americans, Canada is a blur. It contains a lot of pine trees, moose, and Mounties; its population is relatively small, its politics relatively polite. Canadians are honest and serious but slightly dull. Some of us may pity or scorn them for not having joined the revolution of 1776: in this view, they are like the goody-goody siblings who never rebelled against their parents.

On the other hand, we also admit Canada’s virtues, including a working national health care system, the acceptance of draft protesters during the Vietnam War, and the possession of many of the most brilliant and original writers in North America. It has sometimes taken us a while to notice these writers, of course. Alice Munro, for instance, had published three brilliant and strikingly original collections of stories and won the Governor General’s Prize before her work first appeared here in The New Yorker. It is only recently that she has been recognized as one of the world’s greatest short story writers.

It is perhaps not only Munro’s Canadian origin that has delayed this recognition. Her stories also avoid the subjects that today most often guarantee popular success in America: money, fame, power, and the exploitation of dramatic news events. In her fiction, history usually takes place offstage, and is accepted like other acts of God: fire, flood, crop failure, the loss of family and friends in accidents and foreign wars. Moreover, most of her characters are not rich and glamorous: they are ordinary working-class men and—especially—women, the sort of people that much popular fiction pretends do not exist. If they were criminals or victims, their stories might have greater appeal—but nothing very dramatic usually happens to them. There are violent acts in Munro’s fiction, including murder and rape, but they usually take place offstage.

According to Alice Munro’s biographer, Robert Thacker, the source of her literary power is grounded in a deep family connection to southwest Ontario, where she was born in 1931 to a farmer called Robert Laidlaw and his wife Anne. The family lived in rural Huron County on the wrong side of a small town called Wingham—photographs of four of its depressing public buildings are included in Thacker’s lavishly illustrated biography, as well as a shot of Munro’s rather bleak childhood home.

Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives is a thoughtful, carefully researched biography. It is very good on the relationship between Munro’s work and its sources; and exhaustive—sometimes exhausting—in its account of her publication history, her dealings with editors and agents, and the reviews and awards she has received. Thacker is also admirably discreet about Munro’s private life and rarely speculates on her motives or feelings. He has worked hard to identify the places, people, and events that may have suggested her stories. From a scholarly point of view this is interesting, but it is not the main point. We remember Emma …

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