My first experience with Alice Munro was with "The View from Castle Rock" in excerpted form in The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Even shortened, something about the ocean journey of this immigrant family intrigued me. On the surface, the story is rather bland. A Scottish family is making the crossing to Canada. The characters, however, are engrossing. Their relationships are unromantic. The father once inspired his son with talk of going to America, and now that they are living this dream, he is filled with nostalgia for Scotland. Agnes married Robert because she was certain he wouldn't leave her for someone else, not out of love. Nor does she have particular affection for her son, whom she feels her sister-in-law spoils. William is a bit of a dreamer, perhaps the most romantic—or simply the most naive—of the bunch.
Although "The View from Castle Rock" attracted me to this book, I preferred the latter stories, focusing on Munro's fictionalized life, to those of her ancestors. The most noticeable difference is Munro's switch from a third person to first person narration. The fact that these stories have a single, central protagonist, whom I shall call Alice to distinguish her from Munro, makes the stories feel more connected and intimate. Almost like a novel.
All right, so I'm biased. I won't deny it: I am a child of the novel, and a lover of novels I remain. I have nothing against short stories or other forms of literature; indeed, there are many a short story that have earned a dear place in my heart. Nevertheless, I never seem to make enough time for short stories. I don't seek out anthologies, and I'm not interested in rectifying this shortcoming of mine. Despite occasionally lighting a fire in me, short stories never beckon to me with the potential to light such a fire. So, when I do dip my feet into the short story pool, I like to sample from the best.
There is a refreshing frankness and honesty to Munro's fictionalization. She presents Alice neither as a Mary Sue nor as a martyr. Alice often makes mistakes, or does something that prompts Munro to express regret. Each story is about a single moment. Everything else in the story is a reflection of this moment, a scaffold that suspends the moment for inspection and introspection.
In one of my favourite stories, "Hired Girl," Alice goes to live with a rich family for the summer to keep house for them. She picks up a book left lying around by the husband, and it captures her imagination. Later he gives the book to her; this exchange, kept secret by both of them, is pregnant with meaning. To me, the act of giving a book is an intimate one. I love to give books to people, even people I don't know very well. When you give a person a book, you are, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, giving them an entire world. The husband was drunk when he gave Alice the book, and he doesn't mention it again later, either because he doesn't remember or he wants the gift to be secret. It's interesting how, when we look back at an event, we make so much out of small things.
Retrospection is a big part of The View from Castle Rock. Alice's world of rural Ontario in the thirties and forties is very different from contemporary Canadian society. Every story is narrated by the older Munro, who has access to the unique perspective of the Alice of that period. As Alice grows older, she assumes a more active role in her stories. Instead of relating what happened to her, she talks more about what she did, the steps she took to make something happen. I liked this progressive time-lapse of both person and place.
Books are always a conversation between author and reader. With The View from Castle Rock, I was more aware of this than usual. At 20, I haven't had a lot of the experiences Munro discusses in the stories of herself and her ancestors. I bring my own experiences to the table, however, and use those perspectives to judge what I read. You do the same. I'm not quite sure what to say about this book, because while I enjoyed it, I don't know how to judge it properly. Is it memoir? Fictionalized family history? Tales about what it means to be family, about ancestry and heredity? I could be trite and say that it's all of these things. But it's more up to you.