Friday, July 4, 2008

All About Alice

Alice Munro has been writing short stories for more than fifty years. Many are set in rural southwestern Ontario where she was born and raised. They are often about women – their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and their illnesses. Munro has claimed that she is not an autobiographical writer, but her woman characters often seem to reflect the author's own feelings. Her newest collection, The View from Castle Rock, edges much closer to the autobiographical line. In Part One “No Advantages” she tells stories about her Scottish ancestors who left the Ettrick Valley (described by the Statistical Account of Scotland in 1799 as having “no advantages”) and came to North America. The names, dates and events are real, gathered from family letters, but Munro imagines the conversations and personality quirks that flesh out the facts. They include a wonderfully imagined description of a six week sea voyage from Scotland to Montreal by Munro's ancestors in1818.

Part Two is called “Home”, and these stories, written in the first person, are Munro's memories of her own life. In the Foreword she stated that the stories were “not memoirs, but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written...I was...exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way”. They begin with memories of her childhood in which her future as a storyteller can already be glimpsed. As a teenager she loves to relay news and gossip from town to her parents on their farm. But she must do it carefully:”I had learned how to do this in a way that would not get me rebuked for being sarcastic or vulgar or told that I was too smart for my own good. I had mastered a deadpan, even demure style that could make people laugh even when they thought they shouldn't and that made it hard to tell whether I was innocent or malicious”. My favorites from this section include “Lying Under the Apple Tree”, in which she describes a secret teenage romance in a way that is both touching and humorous, and “Hired Girl”, where she works for a summer as a maid for a wealthy family at their summer home on an island in the Georgian Bay. Her storyteller talent again emerges as she enthralls the pampered daughter with exaggerated tales of her deprived life - walking barefoot to school and living on a diet of dandelion leaves. She deftly shows us how the lives of the very rich looked to an impressionable teenager.

I won't say that this is my favorite Alice Munro collection, but if you have enjoyed her stories I think you will appreciate getting a closer look at this wonderful writer and her history.

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