The View from Castle Rock
by Alice Munro
Published by Vintage
349 pages, 2008
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Go ahead: try and find something bad to say about Alice Munro. It’s impossible. The worst a friend of mine could do was “I could never get into her.”
When The View From Castle Rock appeared in hardcover, back in 2006, it was rightly hailed by all the right folks, who said lots of nice things about a lifetime of steady, quiet accomplishment, the clear-eyed takes on people’s daily lives and loves. The New Yorker’s first right of refusal on Munro’s stories was oft-invoked; I don’t know of any other writer who holds this honor. (Maybe T.C. Boyle ... who, ah, I could never get into.) Several of Rock’s stories first appeared in the New Yorker, affording me the double pleasure of encountering them once more, fitted here into their rightful places in this fictionalized family history.
I’ve always envied people like Alice Munro, who can trace their lineages, who know their family names -- Laidlaw, in this case. By reading Church histories, Munro found ancestors dating back to 1799. Possessed of a whitewashed Jewish name, an Ellis Island name, I can only go back to 1899, when my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Romania to Montreal. The rest -- names, birthplaces, the fate of those left behind -- is forever unknown.
Not so Munro’s family, who emigrated to Canada. A splinter group settled in America, specifically Joliet, Illinois, but only briefly. Few records remain.
So Munro took history and mingled it with imagination, fleshing out her ancestry, peopling the book with oft-told family stories. She is likely the only one who could parse truth from fiction, but that’s fine. More important is how good these stories are, how they evoke the pioneer life of Canadians, which is neatly excised from all American histories of colonialization and immigration.
Munro comes from a family of writers, readers, tale tellers. Her father and grandfather both liked to read. This behavior was mildly suspect but accepted by the town because the men kept up their land. Female readers were another matter:
The stories of Munro’s ancestors, while affecting, aren’t as moving as the work about herself, Alice, fictionalized or no, moving through childhood to adulthood, from poverty to “city life.” Her early existence is killing in the details: the failure of the family’s fur farm, which forces her father to take a night watchman’s job in a foundry, her mother’s puzzling illness, the strange, little-known Parkinson’s Disease, which leaves Alice, the eldest, with too much responsibility too soon.
Poverty pervades: in the poorly insulated house, in handmade clothing, in the ever-perilous automobile. One evening Alice brings a message to her father at the foundry, only to find him scrubbing floors with a horribly determined cheer. Here is Alice at 13 or 14, watching her father put away his cleaning supplies, spotting:
The pain in that -- the cheapest meat, the three sandwiches attesting to the tremendous, endless hunger of physical labor. The bucket she, a teenager, packed every day because her mother could not. Meanwhile, Munro’s younger sister and brother, left to their own devices, are devising suppers of sardines on crackers.
Later, the adult, divorced Alice visits her father and stepmother and is informed the old house is being sided, the crumbling brick covered against the cruel eastern winds. The books that littered the house are now safely caged in a glass-fronted case, for Alice’s stepmother finds reading asocial. Dinner, served at noon, is:
At teatime her stepmother serves a spice cake, shamefacedly admitting it is from a mix. Next, she worries, it will be store-bought. Alice offers that mixes can be very good. Her father and stepmother nod. Alice is a “city person” now. City people find mixes acceptable.
The writing is reminiscent of Atwood’s Moral Disorder: parents, once young, attractive and vital, are now aging and debilitated. They die with varying degrees of dignity. The writers, now older themselves, have the terrible clarity of age, often called wisdom, and are still healthy enough themselves to act on this knowledge -- or not. Munro, like Atwood, is merciless in writing of her younger self, of her cruelties to her mother, her backtalk, her curiosity, so dangerous in a young woman, a thing to be hidden. But now, decades later, when the doctors find a lump, they wait to biopsy:
Rock concludes with Munro and her husband, Douglas Gibson, driving through Bruce County, Canada. Gibson is a geographer: he has given Munro names for the land she loves: drumlins, end moraines, kame moraines. Her drives with Gibson are punctuated by the mammogram, the scheduling of the biopsy, its eventual cancellation. Alongside the attendant surges of fear and relief about one’s mortality lies the land, ancient and readable, should one wish to look closely. | March 2008