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Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me: A Literary History of Alice Munro

[clock] 21-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2006

Sometime in the late 1970s, Alice Munro made a policy of refusing prizes that didn’t specifically honor the quality of her fiction. When the Canadian government offered her one of its highest honors in 1983—an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, which would have entitled her to a pretty, gold-edged medal with the motto Desiderantes meliorem patriam (“They desire a better country”) emblazoned around a gold maple leaf—Munro politely declined. She didn’t feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity. Only awards that had been earned by particular books or by particular groups of books were okay. Munro was fifty-two by then, and several such awards had already been placed, like love letters, upon her books.

There would be many more to come. In the course of her career, Munro has won prizes from all over the English-speaking world, including the Giller Prize and three Governor General’s Awards from Canada, the W. H. Smith Award from England, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, and the O. Henry Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award from the United States. By 1996 her work had been translated into thirteen different languages, and for decades now, her fans have fought with each other to produce better and better tributes to her work. Contemporaries such as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates have expressed extravagant appreciation. Major writers of the subsequent generation, including Mona Simpson, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Cunningham, have cited her as an important influence upon their work. In April 2005, Time magazine named her among the one hundred most influential people in the world.

At seventy-five, Munro has published more than a dozen books: Dance of the Happy Shades (1968); Lives of Girls and Women (1971); Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974); Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), published in the United States as The Beggar Maid; The Moons of Jupiter (1982); The Progress of Love (1986); Friend of My Youth (1990); Open Secrets (1994); Selected Stories (1996); Love of a Good Woman (1998); Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001); No Love Lost (2003); and Runaway (2004). Now she is about to bring out her fourteenth: The View from Castle Rock.

All but one of these books are short story collections, and the bulk of these stories are set in Huron County, a small region of southwestern Ontario, in towns that resemble, with almost sociological precision, the town of Wingham, where Munro herself was born in 1931. Munro has claimed, at various points in her career, that her fictional towns—Walley, Carstairs, Logan, Hanratty, Dalgleish, Jubilee—are not ciphers for Wingham, but these denials have grown fainter and less frequent in the past twenty years. And for a long time, her Canadian fans have sensed a deeper truth. In Robert Thacker’s biography of Munro, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (Douglas Gibson Books, 2005), he tells us that for years now Canadians have referred to Huron County as “Alice Munro County” and that the North Huron District Museum has abetted their “Munroviana” scavenger hunts by providing neat little pamphlets that outline a self-guided “Alice Munro Tour” of Wingham.

Thacker’s book proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that many of Munro’s stories are built upon fact, and that many of her characters are based upon members of her own family. This sort of detective work is useful—it clears away discussions of what is and isn’t true—but it can be tedious to read. Does knowing that Munro’s father once whipped her with a belt the way Rose’s father whips her in “Royal Beatings” diminish or heighten our appreciation of that marvelous story? The answer, of course, is neither. The story remains separate from life, like a jewel chiseled from the earth, and whatever bruises Munro may have suffered as an adolescent, what matters on this side of the printing press is what she’s done with them on the page.

But by documenting when and how Munro reached for the material of her life, Thacker allows us to see the evolution of a writer from a young, ambitious girl conjuring literary tricks to a mature artist who understands that some stories only she can tell. The transformation took about thirty-five years. During that time, Munro traveled from Wingham to the University of Western Ontario to Vancouver to Victoria. At each step, she improved her writing, pushing herself not just technically but emotionally, until she found material so complex and so close to her heart that it altered the way she viewed fiction.

First there was Wingham. “For most of its history,” Thacker writes, “Wingham was dry, and it was populated mostly by people for whom virtue came from hard work, who often felt guilt, who were quick to remember a slight but would seldom recall a compliment.” Located at the junction of two branches of the Maitland River, the town is surrounded by water on three sides. The section known as Lower Town, where Munro and her family lived, is separated from the town proper by one of the Maitland’s branches, and is connected back to it by a bridge. During the 1930s and ‘40s, when Munro was growing up, Wingham was primarily an industrial town. Most of its jobs were provided by the glove factory, the door factory, the furniture factory, and the foundry, but there were other jobs as well. Describing the Wingham-ish Hanratty in “Royal Beatings,” Munro wrote:

In Hanratty the social structure ran from doctors and dentists and lawyers down to foundry workers and factory workers and draymen; in West Hanratty it ran from factory workers and foundry workers down to larger improvident families of casual bootleggers and prostitutes and unsuccessful thieves.

This deadpan sentence set off a bomb of indignation when it reached Wingham in 1977. As late at 1981, one of Munro’s old neighbors, Joyce McDougall, was writing to the local paper against it. Lower Town, McDougall wrote, “was truly a town of hardworking, moral and respectable people.” The fact that Munro had walked past a bootlegger there every day on her way to school didn’t mean a thing.

Some of Munro’s most devastating lines are delivered in the same implacable manner as that description of Hanratty: the measured rhythms wrapped carefully around a thorn of truth. Here she is in “Working for a Living,” dissecting her father’s decision to drop out of high school:

He felt nearby the fierce breath of ridicule, he over-estimated the competition, and the family caution, the country wisdom, came to him then. Stay out of it.

None of Munro’s girlhood reading prepared her to write such a beautifully brutal line. Growing up on the outer edge of Lower Town, Munro immersed herself in Charles Dickens, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Alfred Tennyson, Zane Grey, Hans Christian Andersen, and Emily Bronte. By her own account she was “the sort of child who reads walking upstairs and props a book in front of her when she does the dishes.” It was a habit she picked up from her parents. Robert Laidlaw may have dropped out of high school, but he was thought to have read every book in the Wingham public library, and when he married, in 1927, the woman he chose was a schoolteacher.

Anne Laidlaw (née Chamney) was a powerful, agitating force in the Laidlaw household. It was she who provided the money, saved from her teaching days, that allowed the couple to buy property on the very edge of Lower Town, where Bob Laidlaw could raise silver foxes for their fur. It was Anne who tied bows in little Alice’s hair and who read poetry to her and who demanded to have her transferred from the Lower Town elementary school to the better, middle-class one in Wingham proper. When the fur market began to sink in the early 1940s, it was Anne who devised a plan to keep the family afloat for one more summer. When she was out of the house, Munro recalls, “Some alert and striving note was removed. An edge of ambition, self-regard, perhaps discontent, was absent.”

Anne’s confidence and entrepreneurialism drove the Laidlaw family’s ambitions, and when she fell ill with Parkinson’s in 1943, shortly before the fur market collapsed, the family sunk into real poverty. Robert Laidlaw broke down his fox pens and took a job as a night watchman in the foundry, mopping its floors to earn extra money on the side. At thirteen, Munro herself shouldered most of the housework and supervised her two younger siblings. The power had fallen to her. “My mother objected to things, but in a way I had the upper hand of her,” the narrator of “Winter Wind” remarks. “After all, it was I who heated tubs of water on the stove and hauled the washing machine from the porch and did the washing, once a week; I who scrubbed the floor, and with an ill grace made her endless cups of tea.”

Robert’s mother, Sadie Laidlaw, moved to Wingham with her sister to offer a measure of help. She brought with her an inflexible Presbyterianism and the unspoken belief that Anne’s scandalously assertive personality had brought on her disease. Hearing of Anne’s latest, failed attempt to rekindle her old dynamism, Sadie might deliver a withering assessment, like the grandmother’s in “Winter Wind” who hears of the invalid mother’s attempt to paint the kitchen:

“There,” said my grandmother with annoyance and satisfaction, “she will get herself involved in something like that, which she ought to know will wear her out, and she will not be able to do any of the things that have to be done. She will be painting the cupboards when she would be better getting your father’s dinner.”

And there we find the brutal note.

Munro didn’t always writes stories based on such intimate family history. By the age of fourteen, she’s said, she was “totally serious” about her work, but the fiction she produced then was romantic: imitations of Zane Grey, a knockoff of Wuthering Heights. Stories good enough to win the praise of her high-school English teacher, Audrey Boe, who encouraged Munro to apply for scholarships to university. Stories good enough to secure Munro a reputation among her teenybopper peers, who imagined her garnering fame with a “short, short novel” called “Parkwater’s Passionate Pair.” But Munro was no T. S. Eliot. She wrote nothing in high school that she thought worthy to include in her 1968 debut, Dance of the Happy Shades.

The earliest work in that collection, “The Time of Death,” was first published in Canadian Forum in 1956, while Munro was living in Vancouver with her husband Jim, from whom she took her last name. “The Time of Death” is a strong, well-constructed piece, and it was widely reprinted in Canada. Set in the poor section of a small town, its central incident, Thacker reveals, is almost identical to an event recorded on March 23, 1939, in the Wingham Advance-Times: “Howick Baby Scalded to Death. . . . The 18-months-old baby pulled a pail of boiling water off the table, the water spilling over his entire body, scalding him badly.” In Munro’s story, the pail tips over the baby offstage.

Munro’s talent for juxtaposing scenes, as well as her taste for social realism, is already evident in this story. When the boy’s siblings are taken to buy new shoes for the funeral, they expose “black dirt-caked toenails.” The scene in which his sister wails hysterically is set against snow dropping softly on the neighborhood’s tattered roofs, perhaps in homage to “The Dead.” But where Munro’s mature stories dazzle with the emotional equivalent of hairpin turns, “The Time of Death” is as humdrum as a country road. In 1973, Munro told Jill Gardiner that when she first started writing, setting meant more to her than people. The bias is evident here. The physical details—”puddles of milk and porridge” around a kitchen sink; the clean, feather tick bed at the neighbor’s house—are as sharp as photographs. But the characters themselves are treated with condescension: their personalities are too neat.

All writers begin by writing exercises, Munro told J. R. Struthers in 1981, and the eighteen or so stories she published in the 1950s fall within that group. “I don’t mean they aren’t felt and imagined as well as you can do them,” she said, but she embarked upon them theoretically, to try out and hone techniques. It was only after she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht” in 1959 that she dug into stories that were really meaningful to her, and therefore painful to write.

Munro did not come to those stories easily. In 1951, after two heady years at the university in London, Ontario, where the college literary journal went wild over her stories, Alice dropped out of school and married Jim Munro, the son of a Toronto accountant. Together they moved four thousand miles across the country so Jim could work at a department store in Vancouver. Continuing school had not been an option for Munro: her scholarship money had run out, her parents couldn’t afford to support her. At the end of her sophomore year, if Jim had not proposed, Munro would have been forced to move back to Wingham, where she was still known as the poor, prizewinning girl from Lower Town. Instead, she stepped into the middle class. And she was lucky. Jim was that rare thing in the 1950s: a husband who encouraged the professional interests of his wife. A serious reader of fiction, who later opened an independent bookstore called Munro’s Books, Jim understood what Alice was trying to achieve. On her twenty-first birthday, he gave her a typewriter.

Munro told very few people in Vancouver that she was a writer. Out of modesty, or embarrassment, or a reluctance to share her heart’s true desire, she pretended that she was only a housewife. But between caring for her two daughters—born in 1953 and 1957—and dodging the gossipy neighbors, she was trying to produce real work.

Robert Weaver, the director of Canadian Short Stories at CBC Radio, was the only friend Munro had in the professional world of literature when she left Vancouver. That was another piece of luck. Though Munro didn’t know it when she began correspondence with him in 1951, Weaver was a tremendously influential person in the emerging world of CanLit. Munro quickly became one of his proteges. He bought several of her early stories for his show and published many of them in his journal, the Tamarack Review. He also set up contacts for Munro with other magazines and helped her apply for grants. In fact, until 1976, when Munro hired Virginia Barber as her agent, Weaver was the person who most looked after the interests of Munro’s work. He made only one mistake. Trying to help Munro move forward with her career, Weaver pushed her to write a novel, something she has never done successfully.

What makes Munro’s characters so enthralling is their inconsistency; like real people, at one moment they declare they will cover the house in new siding, at the next, they vomit on their way to a hospital. They fight against and seek refuge in the people they love. The technique that Munro has forged to get at such contradictions is a sort of pointillism, the setting of one bright scene against another, with little regard for chronology. Impressive and effective in shorter fiction, this technique can destroy the momentum that holds most novels together. Nonetheless, Munro would try over and over again during the late 1950s and early 1960s to write a full-length narrative. The attempts would bring on writer’s block, panic attacks, an ulcer, and a feeling of constant despair. Her one “novel,” Lives of Girls and Women, is really a closely linked series of stories, and after it was published in 1971, Munro would never attempt a novel again.

In the middle of these professional agonies, Munro produced the story that transformed the way she approached fiction. “The Peace of Utrecht” was written just a few months after Anne Laidlaw’s death on February 10, 1959, and the story’s base plot hews to Munro’s own experience. In it, a daughter who has skipped her mother’s funeral visits her hometown the following summer (just as Munro did) and learns that her mother (like Anne Laidlaw) ran away from the hospital shortly before her death. “Utrecht” embeds the story of this escape within a larger story about the mother’s two daughters. The younger one, visiting from the city, feels lost among familiar faces. The older one, stuck in the family home, wants to, but cannot, remake her life after her mother’s death. “Why can’t I?” she cries in the story’s final, heart-breaking line. Munro offers no answer. The characters and their conflicts are too involved for easy resolution.

Munro has said that writing “The Peace of Utrecht” taught her that “some things have to be written by me.” Having found her material, Munro needed only a workable vessel for it, and that she found in Eudora Welty’s 1949 story collection The Golden Apples. Munro told Thacker that she read The Golden Apples “over and over again” in 1959, and he speculates that the collection brought into focus something Munro had been fumbling toward herself: how to evoke a world through a series of connected short stories. It is a lesson Munro has continued to apply throughout her career.

The discoveries Munro made in 1959 would carry her forward for the next fourteen years; from the making of Dance of the Happy Shades, which earned her first Governor General’s Award, to the publication of Lives of Girls and Women and the printing of her second collection of stories, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, in 1974. During those same years her marriage would come apart. Its happiest time, Munro would later recall, was from 1963 to 1966, while she and Jim were busy setting up Munro’s Books in Victoria. Hard work, poverty, the desire to see the store succeed united the family then. But in August 1966, Jim insisted they move into a twelve-room Tudor-style house that Munro loathed. “[W]e moved to that house, which we did against my will when I was eight months pregnant [with my third daughter],” Munro told Catherine Ross. “Something happened right then. Something pulled apart.”

“My father was on the side of conformity, conventional values, and conservative politics, and my mother was on the side of individualism, left-wing politics, and rebellion against conformity,” Sheila Munro observes in her memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro (McClelland & Stewart, 2001). The house, with its old fashioned style, became emblematic of those differences, but there were other catalysts as well. In the time that Munro was assembling her first intimate stories about Wingham, her husband expressed nothing but disdain for her relatives. Sheila writes that while Munro

may have been above reproach as a writer in [Jim’s] eyes, 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.

Condescending, middle-class husbands appear regularly in Munro’s post-marriage work.

Still, partly because of her children and partly because she couldn’t support herself financially, Munro stayed with Jim until September 1973, when, with encouragement of her friend and lover John Metcalf, she moved back across the country to London and took a job at York University. She was forty-two.

After this separation Munro wrote her next turning-point work: “Home.” The story recounts a woman’s visit to her father and her stepmother, Irlma. Irlma, the daughter finds, has changed everything in the family home: the ceiling, the wallpaper, the window-frame, the furniture, the placement of the books. Her father’s health is worse than she expected, and she can no longer count on her ability to tell when he is well. Even more disconcerting, perhaps, is the realization that she and her father are no longer united in their opinions. He has fallen in love with a woman whom the daughter finds vulgar and insensitive. “She’s a wonder,” the father says of Irlma from his hospital bed, and to the daughter, this gasped-out compliment feels like a barb.

Like the “The Peace of Utrecht,” but unlike most of Munro’s stories, “Home” was written almost immediately after the incident upon which it is based. On October 8, 1973, Munro visited her father and his second wife, Mary Etta Charters Laidlaw, in Lower Town, where the couple raised turkeys and sheep. Robert Laidlaw was suffering from heart trouble at the time and Munro did have to take him to the hospital, following the streets she names in the story. In fact, “Home” contains so many points of truth that Munro decided to leave it out of the manuscript for Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, which she was working on at the time. Instead, she published it in New Canadian Stories, where she believed neither Robert nor Mary Etta would stumble upon it. Only now, in these pages, is it being reprinted for wider circulation.

Wingham’s messages for her “have drained away,” Munro declares in “Home,” but the narrative itself unearths new characters and complications. Her next story collection, 1978’s Who Do You Think You Are? (a.k.a. The Beggar Maid), which was published two years after her father’s death, would bring out the famous Flo stories, in which a defensive Mary Etta-like stepmother appears. (So do less-than-flattering stories based on Robert Laidlaw.) What’s interesting about the stories in Who Do You Think You Are? is that while several of the characters are derived from real people, the combinations are utterly new. Mary Etta, for example, was not in the house while Munro was a child, as Flo is in Rose’s home during “Royal Beatings.” Writing of Wingham, Munro no longer needs to hew to the facts to reach an emotional truth.

*  *  *  *  

Two years after she wrote “Home” Munro moved to Clinton, twenty-two miles southwest of Wingham. She was in love again—”This time it’s real,” she wrote her friend Audrey Thomas. The man was Gerald Fremlin, whom Munro had had a crush on in college, before she met Jim. At the University of Western Ontario, Fremlin had been a dark, rebellious poet whose attention Munro had tried to win—to no avail—by passing him one of her stories. In August 1974, he was a physical geographer—the kind of person who knows the difference between a drumlin and a moraine—and the editor of The National Atlas of Canada. Listening to Munro do an interview on the radio, Fremlin learned that she was living in London and decided to call her up. They went out for a three-martini date at the Faculty Club. He had never been married.

Little more than a year later, Munro moved in with Fremlin and his mother in Clinton. Since then, she has produced a steady stream of extraordinary stories that have grown increasingly complex in their structuring. They’re longer, too. One reason why so many American writers may have fallen in love with Munro in the 1970s and ‘80s is that while authors in this country were bent on minimalism, Munro was running stories in the New Yorker that pushed novella length. In 1986, three years before Susan Minot published the tiny fictions of Lust, Munro brought out The Progress of Love, with its twenty-five and thirty-page stories on the same topic. “A lot of people think a short story should have only what is essential,” Munro says, “but I’ll sometimes decide to leave things in the versions of the stories that appear in my books, even if they’re not essential. I know a lot about my characters. I know what the furniture looks like. When I write a story I have to see everything.”

Many of my favorite Munro stories come from her last two collections: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” “Floating Bridge,” the 2004 trilogy “Chance,” “Soon,” “Silence.” Munro has written some of the greatest, most painfully funny stories about adultery, and some of the most moving ones about the love of aging couples. But she may never write about the late 1990s and early 2000s in quite the depth she wrote about the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. There is a lag time in her fiction, usually. “I don’t know right now until five years from now,” she told Lisa Dickler Awano. “I have to go into the past to get things lit up a little.” In her forthcoming collection, The View from Castle Rock, she skips back a century, combining memoir-ish stories of her childhood and of her parents with stories set in the 1800s, when her ancestors left Scotland and Ireland to pioneer Canada. The result is a genealogy of character. One strain of the family, she reveals, believed in “strenuous dignity and control,” in a refusal to self-dramatize, an abhorrence of attention. This strain was supported by a fierce Presbyterianism, and looked with irritation on the other branch of relatives, who had a “large and irresistible” need to turn their lives into stories. All of these people, we learn, often left home—in hopes of better fields, cleaner houses. All of them left, but only some felt compelled to write about it.


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