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An Appreciation of Alice Munro


ISSUE:  Summer 2006

 
Alice Munro grew up in an era in which women were expected to be mothers, teachers, or nurses. You wouldn’t have concluded that you were going to be a writer. But sometimes necessity creates these talents. The Canadian market is a fraction of the size of the US market, which makes it so much harder to earn a living doing what you love to do. Yet geographically, Canada is so large, artists couldn’t just gather together the way they did in the Village in New York. So CBC—Canadian public radio—became that thin line that connected people across distances and gave hope that all this was possible.

We see that a Margaret Laurence or a Munro sparks an Atwood. You need role models. You have to understand that it’s maybe okay, and you have to understand that it’s possible. These writers created the scene, an internationally respected literary culture, and a generation of writers has been spawned. During the past fifteen to twenty years, the number of spectacular Canadian writers to come up has been amazing. And this has taken place while Munro and Atwood are still in peak form. They are living role models.

Munro’s stories convey aspects of Canadian geography and culture as well. In Runaway, there were a couple of references to Saskatchewan, which is my home province. When my grandmother went west, her family homesteaded. They were breaking the soil. In the prairies of western Canada, the government would give people a parcel of land if they would develop it. But you had to be comfortable with isolation in remote areas. And when you were living among farmers who were literally carving life out of the land, you didn’t have time for niceties. No father was going off to the delivery room to watch the baby being born, or focusing on creating a “quality life” for the children.

When I was growing up in the very small town of Wadena, I wouldn’t think of going to big cities such as Toronto or Vancouver. Instead I went to Regina or Saskatoon, which were smaller and closer to me. Alice Munro is from Wingham—also a very small town—but located in southwestern Ontario, where the farming communities tended to be larger, and influenced by their proximity to the US and Toronto. So when she sets stories in this region, characters may leave the comfort of the small-town cocoon, which allows them to go off to a big city, where they will experience the good and the bad. And Munro will show you the small-town and the big-city points of view.

I believe Munro understands the rural-urban divide—what in the US would be seen as the difference between the red and blue states—in terms of lifestyle, cultural and experiential differences. Others write paternalistically about the rural sensibility, but Munro turns such writing on its head. She doesn’t try to defend the characteristics of small towns. She shows you the complexity of life there, and she knows that Peyton Place is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. In Munro’s stories, it just happens in this different kind of window. In a larger town, a person can choose not to go back to a certain district. But in a small town, people have to learn to accommodate and make relationships work, because they don’t have the luxury of strangeness.

In short, Munro’s stories are authentic. They are not like something you know. They are what you know. The reader wonders, How did she know that I felt that feeling? The familiarity is almost eerie. On the face of it, there is a simplicity to the prose, but this is misleading. In life, when a marriage is breaking down and you’re dealing with it, you just do it, and then at the end you say, How did I get through this? In Munro’s stories, the characters’ turmoil is your turmoil. This is the interaction of real people. After you finish reading, you’re tired, because Munro has made you live through so much emotion.

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