The way we were (or might have been)
Alice Munro's fictionalized family history is all true – except for the parts that she made up.
Next to J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee, Alice Munro might be the last writer from whom anyone would expect a memoir. But then, it's hard to imagine anything that looks less like a traditional memoir than the 12 stories collected in her new book The View From Castle Rock.
For one thing, as Canada's preeminent short-story writer notes in her foreword, not everything in the stories really happened. (Insert your own James Frey joke here.)
"I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way," writes Munro, who has won three Governor General's Awards, more than any other writer. "In fact some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with."
While the stories may feel more personal to Munro, a reader familiar with her previous collections, such as "The Beggar Maid" and "Runaway," will find that the "Castle Rock" view is a pretty familiar one. The fully drawn women; the rural, cash-strapped setting; the precise writing, are all present and accounted for – at least after page 126. Before that, Munro indulges in a personal history lesson.
About 12 years ago, Munro writes, she became interested in her paternal Scottish ancestors, the Laidlaws. Her genealogical research bore rather more fruit than usual, because "every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous, letters and detailed recollections."
While she uses excerpts from journals and letters, Munro lets her imagination fill in the blanks around them. In the title story, she imagines a vivid Atlantic crossing for the Laidlaw clan. But the most poignant relationship is between spinster Mary and her toddler nephew. She knows that once he grows up the boy won't have any more use for his shrunken, blotchy aunt than her brothers now do. As is typical with Munro's stories, there's both matter-of-fact pain and unexpected solace.
Munro begins with the family legend, Will O'Phaup, a shepherd whose feats of physical prowess were only equaled by his visitations from fairies, before moving on to the privations of pioneer existence (which were magnified by her ancestors' suspicions regarding anything resembling luxury or beauty). "Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family. Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn't exactly that word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself."
My favorite piece in the collection is "Working for a Living," in which Munro delves into the lives of her parents. Her father was a bright man who failed at running a fox farm, then tried janitorial work, turkey farming, and finally writing. Her mother had business savvy and salesmanship at a time when such traits were deemed embarrassing in women. "If a highway was built through their front yard, some people will be affronted, they will mourn the loss of privacy, of peony bushes and lilacs and dimension of themselves. The other sort will ... put up a hotdog stand.... My mother was the second sort of person." Her mother's efforts to raise cash to help herself and her family were ultimately defeated, not by the tsking of the neighbors and her disapproving mother-in-law, but by a long illness (which the Laidlaws also disapproved of, as it "called attention" to herself).
Another standout is "The Ticket," in which Munro reminisces about the lives of her grandmother and great-aunt, interspersed with scenes of their packing her trousseau full of handmade quilts, linens, and afghans. Aunt Charlie, who we learn had the family's only happy marriage in recent memory, is sewing Munro's wedding gown (which will be deemed shabby and unsuitable, first by Munro's fiancé, then by Munro). When Munro tries to display her family's presents "where they could be seen by anybody coming into our place, he had to speak plainly. And I myself saw the point."
In "Messenger," the melancholy final story, the now middle-aged Munro contemplates the changes in the countryside around her home, which her dad said looked very much the same during his time as during that of his pioneer forebears. Now, though, the farms have been pulled down. Poignantly, she writes, the removal of so many fences and barns has made the landscape smaller. "As if you could see more then, though now you can see farther."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.