Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Douglas Gibson / An Appreciation of Alice Munro

by Douglas Gibson
Lisa Dickler Awano, Compiler and Editor

Before I present a book at a sales conference, I’ll slip quickly through it again, just to remember it all. By this point I’ll have read the book three, four times at least, maybe five times, but I just want to refresh my memory. And the damnable thing with Alice is you can’t just flip through; I find myself reading from cover to cover again. I complain about this to her and she laughs. But the truth of the matter is that I’m still seeing new things, and still seeing new links, and still seeing new flips on the trapeze that she’s undertaken and brought off so smoothly. It’s amazing how brave she is in trying new things.
Alice’s forthcoming volume of short fiction, The View from Castle Rock, is partly based on stories of her own ancestors, first in Scotland, later in transit to the New World, and then in the States and in Canada. She has tied several stages of her family’s history to great events: the popularity of immigration from Scotland, and the settlement of North America. Much of her family went to what was, in those days, Upper Canada, today’s Ontario.
The earliest ancestor whose life Alice recounts in some detail was actually born in Scotland right at the end of the seventeenth century, and Alice remarks in the course of the book that in every generation thereafter, there was a member of the family—a son, a cousin—who took it upon, usually, himself to record his life and, by extension, the family’s life. Even Alice’s father, who was to all appearances a perfectly ordinary small-scale farmer in Western Ontario, had literary ambitions. I can say, as the publisher of his book, The McGregors: A Novel of an Ontario Pioneer Family, that he was a man who could tell a very good, solid story in the form of a historical novel.
So Alice found that she had a pretty good knowledge of who moved where and who did what in each generation. It’s a fascinating basis for a book, and when you add Alice Munro’s wonderful fictional imagination to these generational snapshots you get a fascinating book of stories, in which the characters flow up to Alice’s parents, the child Alice, the teenaged Alice, and the university-student Alice.
In a story mostly set in eighteenth-century Scotland, Alice Munro appears as a twentieth-century tourist, if you like, in Melrose, Scotland, and takes the bus to find this, and experience that, as she tries to get back into the world of her ancestors. She seeks out the old homes and finds the old farmhouse that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather lived in, and so on. She talks about how it’s fascinating to explore the past, to find your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents’ tombstone, and to locate the church where they were married, but she says that there is an inevitable sense of distance and remoteness if you are from another place. While she expresses the difficulty of making those imaginative leaps, she succeeds very well.
On my own visits to Scotland, I was able to be useful to Alice in her research for this book. I could travel to the specific settings of the earlier stories, and I could also supply historical sidebars, because I know the country very well. I copied down the precise wording on the tombstones—she wanted to get it exactly—and reminded her of how the graveyard was laid out. The tombstone of her ancestor James Hogg, who wrote The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is literally side by side with that of her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. They are one yard apart.
I was also able to go back to Alice’s family’s farmhouse because, unbelievably, the building still exists, on the Southern Upland Way cross-Scotland walking route. The structure is called a “bothy” and it’s a sort of hut, a shack that has stone walls. Uninhabited and unlocked, it’s open to the public for overnight shelter. Visitors just come in and unroll their sleeping bags, and there’s a fireplace where they can cook their food. You can poke through the old farmhouse, room to room—this obviously was the stable, and this obviously was where the livestock were kept—in a way that you could never do with an occupied farmhouse; and you couldn’t hope for such vivid evidence in a ruined farmhouse. Then off you go, close the door, and someone else can come the next night.
One branch of Alice’s family initially immigrated to Illinois before going to Upper Canada. Their reason for leaving the States is Dickensian: during the winter the father of the family died on the same day that, in another corner of the shack, a daughter was being born. In the spring, after planting, and once the roads were all right, a brother-in-law of the widow walked beside an oxcart, halfway across the continent, from Ontario to Illinois, to pick up the mother and her small children. He walked them back in the summer, to where they would be looked after in his pioneer household. Alice dramatizes that brilliantly for us.
In The View from Castle Rock, Alice expertly draws parallels between what she sees as Scottish characteristics and the characteristics of the descendants of Scots in the part of the world where she grew up. For example, she writes, “I think Scots are like that. Certainly the people I grew up among were like that and were not going to be impressed by fancy outsiders.”
She’s very much aware of being a product of that cautious, self-effacing, small-town, southwestern Ontario background, which keeps an eye on people who are getting too big for their boots. You can bet that a voice was always sounding at the back of Alice’s head: “Don’t say anything that’s going to make you sound stuck-up, or provoke derision along the lines of, ‘Oh, who do you think you are?’” People are aware that it is risky to be original. And I suspect that originality is risky in many other countries, and in many other small-town farming communities. But if you are an artist, and a compelled artist, then that doesn’t stop you. You pursue what you must, and you do the best you can.
Alice is immensely honest and straightforward and full of common sense. Of course the fiction writer is inspired by the real world, but she’s also inspired by her imagination; and how a writer intertwines fact and imagination—mixes the oil and the water—is always fascinating to follow. I think Alice is unusually frank for a fiction writer when she says, “Yes, everything starts in reality.” And I think there are a number of fiction writers who like to play coy: “It all comes full-blown from the heavens—I don’t know where it comes from.” But Alice, who is much too honest for that, says, “It’s all suggested by something I see, I hear, I read about.” Something in real life, and then the magical inspiration occurs. Alice doesn’t talk about magical inspiration—that’s not Alice. But we can talk about it.


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