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.1
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 Bovary, Sherlock Holmes, and Huckleberry Finn, not the actual persons on whom they have been discovered to have been based. In the same way, the characters Alice Munro has created will always be larger than their possible originals.
Munro’s late flowering as an author, for Robert Thacker, is largely the result of her return to Ontario in 1973 after the breakup of her first marriage and over twenty years of “exile” in British Columbia. Until then, he feels, she was “stymied by her own circumstances and mostly unable to write.” It is true that the work for which Munro is now most famous was composed after she moved back east, but before she did she had published four fine books, including Lives of Girls and Women and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. Many of her early stories, however, take place in small towns and on farms in what is clearly southern Ontario. They are not literally true, but as Munro has said, “There is always a starting point in reality.” “It is not too much to say,” she wrote earlier, to the editor of Lives of Girls and Women, “that every block in that town has some sort of emotional atmosphere for me, and from the pressure of this atmosphere came at last the fictional place Jubilee.”
One of Alice Munro’s great achievements has been to look with care and concern at her chosen world, and at what some readers would consider uninteresting persons: a sulky little girl, a small-town elementary school teacher, a retired salesman of farm chemicals. Munro takes these people seriously. As she says in the epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women, “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”
Huron County, according to Thacker, “was populated mostly by people for whom virtue came from hard work… who were quick to remember a slight but would seldom recall a compliment.” In Alice Munro’s world, physical labor is a test of worth. As a young woman she weeded tobacco and worked as a waitress and a live-in maid. In her early childhood the family was marginally secure: her father raised mink and silver foxes, with over two hundred animals at a time in pens on the property. They had horses, a cow, sheep, chickens, and a big vegetable garden, but they had no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing until Alice Munro was in her early teens. As she writes in an early semi-autobiographical story, “The Ottawa Valley,” “It was a poor man’s house, always, with the stairs going up between the walls.” The house was heated with sawdust, “which was the cheapest fuel you could buy. A horrible smell, but it was cheaper than wood, so we did that. I never had a boughten dress.”
During World War II the fur farm business gradually failed. Munro’s father tried raising turkeys, but this did not pay as well, and he had to take a job as a night watchman in a foundry. At the same time his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and became slowly incapacitated. From the age of twelve on Alice Munro did more and more of the housework and farm labor; she was often unable to visit friends or go to parties because of her obligations at home, and did not date boys.
When she was a high school senior, Munro won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, but after that there was no money for her to continue. As she told an interviewer later, “I could either stay in Wingham or get married.” She chose the second alternative: at the end of 1951, aged twenty, she married her first boyfriend, a well-to-do young man called Jim Munro who already had a job in a department store in British Columbia. Over the next fifteen years, they had three daughters. Alice Munro kept house, looked after the children, worked in the bookstore her husband founded in Victoria, and tried to write.
By the mid-1970s the marriage was over, and Munro had moved back to Ontario with the children. Not long after this, she began living with and later married the geographer Gerry Fremlin. Like her, he was born on a farm in western Ontario and, according to her biographer, shared her deep interest in Huron County.
A more personal version of Alice Munro’s history has been provided by her daughter Sheila. In Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro, Anne Laidlaw (Munro’s mother) appears as a frustrated former schoolteacher who desperately wanted to join the middle class, but failed, and gradually became embittered by her long illness. She had a “violent, almost pathological hatred of sex” and “believed that the only way a woman could have her own life, her own autonomy, was to reject sex completely. Giving in to desire meant sacrificing your self and all your prospects.” (Alice Munro’s fiction sometimes suggests that marriage is a trap for women; but unlike her mother she recognizes and celebrates the sudden, irrational power of passion. In her stories a look or a touch from a near stranger can sometimes make a woman or girl forget everything else.) Sheila Munro sees her mother’s father, Robert Laidlaw, as an intelligent and thoughtful but frustrated man who was overworked all his life and overwhelmed by his wife’s illness. But he managed to read books, and in the last year of his life he wrote a historical novel, The McGregors, based on the experiences of his Scottish immigrant ancestors. (It was published in 1979, three years after his death.)
In her memoir Sheila Munro contrasts her own upbringing with that of her mother, pointing out both its disadvantages and its advantages:
My mother’s poor background shielded her from the cult of femininity that was so ingrained in middle-class popular culture…. She never bought into the…ideas about women being naturally submissive, dependent beings who must sublimate their own ambitions into those of husband and children….
Sheila Munro reports that though she had a happy childhood, her mother found British Columbia oppressive. She disliked the large and impressive house her husband bought for her:
…She always had a strange feeling about the dense bushes and shrubs around the house and the Douglas-fir trees looming behind it, as if the forest were pressing on her. It was a very unfamiliar kind of landscape…after the wide-open spaces of rural Ontario, the brightness of snow-covered fields in winter. The bushes and trees seemed to have some kind of malevolent presence, as if something was lurking in them.
During this period Alice Munro had trouble finding time to work, and her stories were often rejected. Editors pressured her to write a novel, which she found impossible. Her daughter says that “after a time she stopped writing altogether” and developed an anxiety disorder that did not disappear until she left British Columbia.
According to Sheila Munro, her father and his family never quite accepted her mother’s origins:
There was an underlying rejection of [her] class and her background as something shameful. He corrected her Huron County accent and he treated the Wingham relatives who came to visit with scorn and even refused to speak to them on occasion.
Though she reports that she has always been close to her mother, Sheila Munro has found her fame difficult at times. “So unassailable is the truth of her fiction that sometimes I even feel as though I’m living inside an Alice Munro story,” she writes. She sees her mother as a kind of mystery figure:
She has spoken often of her art for dissembling, for concealment…. The appearance of being an ordinary wife and mother meant that people left her alone while she got on with her work.
At one point, Munro told her daughter that she “didn’t have a self.”2
Class has been an important theme in Alice Munro’s work, and her take on it often seems Canadian rather than American. In American fiction, wealth usually trumps origin: the important distinction is between those who have a lot of money and those who don’t: Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart is well born, but she is scorned by wealthy vulgarians; Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan admires Gatsby once he has become very rich, rather than looking down on him. Here the self-made man or woman is respected, while those who have failed professionally and economically in spite of an expensive upbringing get little esteem no matter how refined their manners or exclusive their education. Rather they are condemned because even with a head start they have come to nothing. Canada, however, seems to be more like Britain in valuing the outward signs of an upper-class origin even in the unsuccessful, while recognizing and resenting upper-class prejudices.
Alice Munro has said that she was glad to escape from exhausting physical labor and have time to write, but in her fiction working people often seem more real and more admirable than anyone else. Men and women with monotonous, ill-paid, dirty jobs are not seen as beaten down by circumstances. All the characters in “The Turkey Season,” for instance, make their living killing and plucking and cleaning and packing birds for the Thanksgiving and Christmas market. They are not discouraged or sorry for themselves, however, but tough, humorous, and proud of their strength, speed, and skill. They are also roughly kind to the fourteen-year-old narrator, who has taken an after-school job as a turkey gutter, and wants to do it right:
I had a great need to be successful in a job like that…. Work, to everybody I knew, meant doing things I was no good at doing, and work was what people prided themselves on and measured each other by. (It goes without saying that the things I was good at, like schoolwork, were suspect or held in plain contempt.) So it was a surprise and then a triumph for me not to get fired, and to be able to turn out clean turkeys at a rate that was not disgraceful.
Though Munro’s working-class characters are not ashamed of their jobs, they (especially the women) have other sources of embarrassment. Several critics have remarked on the importance of shame in Munro’s work. Her fictional world is what anthropologists have called a shame culture, rather than a guilt culture. The girls and women in her stories are often abashed by some real or imagined public humiliation, but seldom distressed by sins and errors that remain hidden. Until they are seen in or suspected of some antisocial act, most of them do not appear to agonize over anything they have done. Though Munro was brought up by small-town Protestants and was sent to Sunday schools, where she presumably heard a great deal about sin and guilt, not much of it appears to have rubbed off on her. In “Age of Faith,” she describes her unsuccessful early adolescent attempts to find God, a quest she soon abandoned. “The question of whether God existed or not never came up in church. It was only a matter of what He approved of, or usually of what He did not approve of.” According to Sheila Munro, her mother lost her faith for good at about twelve.
For Munro, shame is always social or sexual or both. In “The Beggar Maid” Rose is embarrassed when she brings her well-to-do boyfriend, Patrick, home to dinner from college. Her stepmother has made a special effort for the occasion:
Flo had gone to great trouble, and cooked a meal of scalloped potatoes, turnips, big country sausages…. Patrick detested coarse-textured food, and made no pretense of eating it. The table was spread with a plastic cloth, they ate under the tube of fluorescent light. The centerpiece was new and especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in color, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins….
She felt ashamed on more levels than she could count. She was ashamed of the food and the swan and the plastic tablecloth; ashamed for Patrick, the gloomy snob, who made a startled grimace when Flo passed him the toothpick-holder; ashamed for Flo with her timidity and hypocrisy and pretensions; most of all ashamed for herself. She didn’t even have any way that she could talk, and sound natural.
The new Everyman’s Library edition of Alice Munro’s work, Carried Away, is a collection of seventeen of her best-known stories. All but one first appeared in The New Yorker (the exception, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” was rejected by the magazine because it was over fifty pages long). Though Carried Away leaves out all the early work, it is a good introduction to her fiction, and especially valuable because of the generous and perceptive introduction by Margaret Atwood, who speaks of Munro as “among the major writers of English fiction of our time.” Atwood, though she was also born in Ontario, is in many ways a very different kind of writer from Munro. She has traveled and taught widely and written brilliantly in many genres (novels, stories, speculative fiction, poetry, political and social essays, children’s books, literary criticism); she is also a talented graphic artist. In Isaiah Berlin’s terms, among contemporary Canadian writers she is the fox who knows many things, while Munro is the hedgehog who knows one big thing.3
Atwood also sees Munro as essentially a regionalist writer, deeply imbedded in what she calls “Sowesto” (southwestern Ontario), “an area of considerable interest, but also of considerable psychic murkiness and oddity.” As she puts it,
Lush nature, repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours—none are ever far away in Munro’s Sowesto, partly because all have been provided by the real life of the region itself.
Atwood reminds us that Alice Munro’s achievement is the more remarkable because in the small town where she grew up, intellectual and artistic ambitions were often discouraged:
Her fictional world is peopled with secondary characters who despise art and artifice, and any kind of pretentiousness or showing off. It’s against these attitudes and the self-mistrust they inspire that her central characters must struggle in order to free themselves enough to create anything at all.
The dislike of self-promotion is another recurrent theme in Munro’s fiction, and apparently also in her life. She once told Sheila Munro that as a child she “knew that it was very, very important never to brag, never to reveal the extent of one’s ambition, never to seem better than anybody else.” When she has won a prize or published a story she still does not usually mention it. Possibly this may be because she unconsciously assumes that everyone knows everyone else’s business anyhow; as she remarks in “Age of Faith,” “Sometimes I thought of the population of Jubilee as nothing but a large audience, for me; and so in a way it was; for every person who lived there, the rest of the town was an audience.”
In Munro’s fiction people are criticized for trying to “get above themselves,” often with the scornful question that became the Canadian title of her fourth book, Who Do You Think You Are? As Atwood points out, in these stories “artistic characters are punished for not succeeding, but they are punished also for success.” In “The Moons of Jupiter” a woman writer says of her father:
The message I got from him was simple: Fame must be striven for, then apologized for. Getting or not getting it, you will be to blame.”
As a result of this kind of negative feedback, Atwood suggests, Alice Munro has always had doubts about the legitimacy of writing and her own writing in particular: to some extent she shares Wingfield’s distrust of intellectual and artistic effort.
Possibly as a result of this inhibition, Munro does not have an easily recognizable and charismatic style. She does not put herself forward as a clever and charming companion, encouraging us to share her views and appreciate her take on life. Her prose, like that of Chekhov—whom she resembles in several other ways—is transparent. When she tells a story she never suggests that both author and reader are smarter and more sophisticated than anyone in the story. (Of course, no writer can avoid presenting some kind of persona, if only through choices of language and subject—but this is not the same thing as deliberately stepping on stage and dancing in front of one’s characters.)
Alice Munro has been compared not only to Chekhov, but to Proust. As in Remembrance of Things Past, her stories follow the patterns of memory: they jump forward and backward in time, just as memories do, and sometimes the earliest events in a tale are related last. “Carried Away,” for instance, begins with Louisa, a librarian who is having a romantic wartime correspondence with a soldier she has never met; then we hear of her earlier disastrous affair with a married doctor. Next we are told how the soldier returns but marries someone else, then of Louisa’s eventually happy marriage to another man, her widowhood, and a meeting much later with someone who may or may not be her long-lost lover. But the end of the story takes place far back in time, when Louisa arrives as a young woman in the town Munro calls Carstairs, describing her wish to forget her past and her hopes for the future:
She had never been here when the leaves were on the trees. It must make a great difference. So much that lay open now would be concealed. She was glad of a fresh start, her spirits were hushed and grateful.
She had made fresh starts before and things had not turned out as she had hoped, but she believed in the swift decision, the unforeseen intervention, the uniqueness of her fate.
It has been remarked that there is almost always something open-ended, unexplained, or incomplete in Munro’s work. But this deliberate refusal to weave in all the loose ends makes her stories seem more authentic, since this is what real life is like. We never know anything about the future, or everything about the past, we never even know very much about those to whom we are closest. Sometimes, Munro goes so far as to say that she herself does not know what finally happened to her characters. To a reader, this may seem disingenuous—after all, she invented them. But in fact writing always involves moments when the author’s imagination, like an exhausted horse, flags and fails no matter how hard it is whipped. What is invented to fill in the gaps is usually thin and false. It takes both courage and honesty to recognize this, and leave blank spaces.
These narrative gaps, however, have left Munro open to a great deal of speculation and interpretation on the part of critics. There are already over a dozen books and theses and a clamoring clutter of scholarly articles treating her work from various fashionable and unfashionable perspectives: religious, anthropological, sociological, historical, biographical, psychological, structuralist, deconstructionist, symbolist, etc. The View from Castle Rock, her new collection, will no doubt bring forth more such interpretations. It contains works that, Munro tells us in the foreword,
were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life…. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life…. Such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does.
And, as she says later, “When you write about real people you are always up against contradictions.”
The View from Castle Rock begins with four stories based on the lives of Munro’s ancestors in Scotland and as early settlers in Canada. The title story, and also the most striking of them, is an imaginative recreation of Old James Laidlaw’s journey with his family to the New World in 1818. Though they are poor and uneducated, like all her working-class characters they are strongly individual and psychologically complex. Agnes, James’s pregnant daughter-in-law, for instance, is ignorant and superstitious and in pain:
The child is turning somersaults in her belly. Her face is hot as a coal and her legs throb and the swollen flesh in between them…is a scolding sack of pain. Her mother would have known what to do about that, she would have know which leaves to mash to make a soothing poultice.
At the thought of her mother such misery overcomes her that she wants to kick somebody.
In most conventional historical fiction, someone in this situation might weep, want to die, or be determined to endure; Agnes wants to attack and cause pain.
So real do these people seem that I was desolated to hear of the early deaths of some of them after they reached Canada. But not surprised, since their world is bleaker and their outlook more fatalistic than that of similar characters in Munro’s earlier books. In “The Wilds of Morris Township,” for instance, which quotes extensively from genuine journals and letters, Munro comments that
without any pressure from the community, or their religion,… [her ancestors] had constructed a life for themselves that was monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence.
The lives of these people are also less dramatic and violent. In The View from Castle RockMunro’s disagreeable great-great-uncle Young James Laidlaw is killed in a logging accident, whereas in an earlier story based on the same journals, “Wilderness Station,” his death turns out to be a murder and is followed by a dramatic scene of (possibly false) confession.
The impulse to imagine and elaborate is strong in most good writers, and so, apparently, is the resentment of this impulse on the part of readers. In The View from Castle Rock Munro quotes a letter from her great-great-great-grandfather complaining of Scottish writers like his own cousin James Hogg, the author of Memoirs of a Justified Sinner:
…If I read the Bible right I think it says that all Liares is to have there pairt in the Lake that Burns with Fire and Brimstone but I suppose they find it a Loquarative trade for I belive that Hogg and Walter Scott has got more money for Lieing than old Boston and the Erskins got for all the Sermons ever they Wrote….
She then adds, “I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention.”
The later stories in The View from Castle Rock take place in the present or near present, and often seem close to Munro’s own experience. In “Hired Girl,” she describes her unhappy summer as a maid for a rich family. “Working for a Living” is an unsentimental but moving study of her father’s employment history, and also of the months in which her mother successfully sold furs from the family farm to rich women, while her absence “brought a sort of peace—not only between them [the parents], but for all of us.” Three other stories are centered on the lives of contrasting families. “Fathers” looks at the home lives of two girls the narrator knew when she was in school. One is the tough, self-reliant daughter of a drunken farmer who beats his wife and children. Nobody does anything about this:
In those days they were just taken as they were and allowed to live out their lives…. It might be said—it was said—that nobody had any use for him and that you had to feel sorry for her. But there was a feeling that some people were born to make others miserable and some let themselves in for being made miserable.
The narrator’s other friend is the delicate only child of well-to-do and apparently affectionate and indulgent parents. But behind the father’s courtly manner is something darker. “The shameless hands and the smacking kiss. There was a creepy menace about all of this, starting with the falsity of corralling me to play the role of little friend….” “There were demands that seemed indecent, there were horrid invasions, both sneaky and straightforward.” All fathers, in this story, are dangerous, even the narrator’s. Most of the time he is kind and calm, but when she misbehaves he slips into sadistic rage:
My father…was a man of honor and competence and humor…. I did not hate him, could not consider hating him. Instead, I saw what he hated in me. A shaky arrogance in my nature, something brazen yet cowardly, that woke in him this fury.
Shame. The shame of being beaten, and the shame of cringing from the beating. Perpetual shame.
Other central themes of Munro’s work reappear in The View from Castle Rock. In “Hired Girl” there is the mixture of sexual desire, curiosity, and disgust felt by the narrator when a middle-aged guest of the rich family she works for seems interested in her:
The thought of being touched and desired by a man that old—forty, forty-five?—was in some way repulsive, but I knew I would get pleasure from it, rather as you might get pleasure from being caressed by an amorous tame crocodile.
There is also a quiet scorn for people who idealize rural life but have never known what it is to be really poor or do strenuous physical labor. In “Home,” for instance, while visiting her father and his second wife, the narrator goes out to the barn to spread hay for the sheep:
I am wearing open sandals, cheap water-buffalo sandals. This type of footwear is worn by a lot of women I know and it is seen to indicate a preference for country life, a belief in what is simple and natural. It is not practical when you are doing the sort of job I am doing now. Bits of hay and sheep pellets, which are like big black raisins, get squashed between my toes….
People I know say that work like this is restorative and has a peculiar dignity, but I was born to it and feel it differently.
Even in these stories, which are closest to her own history, Alice Munro’s commitment to indeterminacy and the essential confusion and mystery of life remains. The view from Castle Rock in Edinburgh, for instance, turns out to be an illusion. When her ancestor Andrew is ten his father takes him to see it: “a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in sunlight and part in shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.” In fact, what he sees is Fife, but his father claims it is America, “where every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties, and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.” This episode in a way contains the message of the whole book: what you imagine as your future is not what you will get: the real future is always farther away and stranger, better and worse.
In The View from Castle RockAlice Munro also remains aware of the disapproval of small-town society, especially of small-town women. In the appropriately titled “What Do You Want to Know For?” she remarks that in this world “an appetite for impractical knowledge of any kind did not get encouragement.” If you persisted in your curiosity,
you would stand out. And that was not a good idea. And wondering about olden days—what used to be here, what happened there, why, why?—was as sure a way to make yourself stand out as any.
In spite of this disapproval, Alice Munro’s curiosity persists, though at the end of the book what she wants to know has altered. In “Home” the narrator remarks that the town she grew up in “stays very much the same…. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up.” But Huron County still interests her: her husband’s professional knowledge of the geography and geology of the landscape has made it newly absorbing. Together they drive the back roads of the county with a geological map, recording what they see with loving care:
In the big gravel pits you see hills turned into hollows, as if a part of the landscape had managed, in a haphazard way, to turn itself inside out. And little lakes ripple where before there were only terraces or river flats. The steep sides of the hollows grow lush, in time, bumpy with greenery.
The narrator’s greatest thrill comes when she discovers a strange family mausoleum in which a chair, a table, and a lamp were placed among the coffins. Trying to find out more, she meets a former neighbor of the family who knew her own father years ago. As she puts it, “We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence,…insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life.” As they drive away, the narrator and her husband wonder if there is oil in the lamp inside the mausoleum, so that it might somehow, one day, shine forth. Metaphorically, of course, in this book, it already does.
December 21, 2006
For example by Lorrie Moore in these pages. See The New York Review, January 17, 2002. ↩
This may seem an odd remark for a brilliant and distinctive writer, but Anthony Powell, whose low-key prose and inspired recreation of specific places and times in the past has something in common with Munro’s work, once said exactly the same thing to me. ↩
It is no doubt coincidental that Margaret Atwood, a redhead, has always resembled a beautiful fox, while Alice Munro might possibly be imagined as a very pretty hedgehog. ↩