The View from Castle Rock – Alice Munro, copyright, 2006
Publisher: Penguin Canada
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
Reason for Reading: I wanted to see what all this Alice Munro fuss was about
I have been meaning to get around to Alice Munro for nearly ten years now. She was the favourite author of my English Lit teacher in high school, who, as I remember, had pretty great taste in writers, especially as concerned Canadian Literature. For those of you unfamiliar with Munro, you should be ashamed of yourselves, she is one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. Three time winner of the Governor General’s Award for English Literature, twice winner of the Giller Prize and one time winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Munro, an author of predominately short-stories, has often been hailed as a master of her craft. I normally don’t care much for short stories, but when I do read them, I prefer that they fit together to create, at least loosely, some sort of larger story. Munro does this well and there has in fact been much debate as to whether she actually writes short stories or novels.
This collection is a sort of semi-fictional familial memoir. Over the course of these twelve stories, Munro recounts the journey of her family, the Laidlaws, from Scotland’s Ettrick Valley to Canada and the United States. The people are real, but much of the detail is imagined by the author as she breathes life into the mysterious lives of her ancestors and her own memories growing-up in Huron County. Mostly simple farmers, the Laidlaw’s were a family with a habit of producing a writer every other generation. Writers who, at the very least, had the fortitude to withstand the hardships they faced, and the gumption and good sense to write down the details of their experiences as they made their way from the hopelessness of the land they knew and loved to a new world, harsh and desolate and full of possibilities. Alice Munro’s ancestors come alive in these pages as they cross the Atlantic, become some of the first settlers in Morris Township and begin laying the groundwork for a phenomenal family that would produce one of the finest authors their new country had ever seen.
“Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family…The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself. And when I study the people I know about in my family, it does seem that some of us have that need in large and irresistible measure – enough so as to make the others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension.” The View from Castle Rock, page 20.
If you have ancestors who made the journey that so many others made throughout the 19th century, you will revel in this book and, perhaps, desire to claim Munro’s family as your own. Both funny and sad, often profound and always inspiring, these stories left me in awe of the strong will and staunch personal character of those who lived before us and made sacrifices, the scope of which, we can never fully appreciate.
“We are beguiled. It happens mostly in our old age, when our personal futures close down and we cannot imagine – sometimes cannot believe in – the future of our children’s children. We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life.” The View from Castle Rock, page 347.
I am sure that part of the reason I enjoyed this first encounter with Alice Munro so very much is that I have something of a fetish for family history. I can relate to Munro’s need to recount the lives of her ancestors and to look back to yesterday in search of something in which to believe. When I try and see past the content of the stories and the genealogical theme of the whole book, I am left staring at a remarkable work of art.
This book contained some of the most smoothly flowing prose I have ever encountered; Munro’s words are chosen with seeming perfection. There are some authors who write beautifully, yet their prose are bogged down by word choices that work, but are not as concise as they could be. The beauty of Munro’s prose is absolute; her writing contains nothing superfluous or redundant and flows in a manner rivalled by few others. She knows exactly how to coax your imagination into burrowing deep inside her stories making her writing all the more majestic. Munro may be in danger or surpassing Timothy Findley as my favourite author (Sacrilege!!! Did I just say that?)