The View from Castle Rock

By Alice Munro

I hope it can be said without being glib or condescending that one of the favourite literary genres for Canadians of a certain age and social background to adopt is the family history/memoir. These volumes are typically self-published retirement projects, and mainly meant to be shared among friends and close relations. I have three of them sitting on my bookshelves now, written by my grandfather, my father, and my aunt. Robert Laidlaw wrote a similar sort of book in the form of a novel based on his family’s pioneer past. And now with The View From Castle Rock his daughter Alice has taken up the task.

She is conscious of the stereotype. When doing research on local church cemeteries at the university reference library she knows the best way to avoid questions about why she’s interested in the subject is to say that she’s writing a family history. “Librarians are used to people doing that – particularly people who have gray hair.” This “rifling around in the past,” the passion for which strikes “mostly in our old age,” is almost a rite of passage now for the senior set.

But seeing as this particular project comes to us courtesy of Alice Munro, it deserves special attention.

A coy “Foreword” explains that these stories were written at various times over the years, but kept out of her other books because they were “rather more personal.” They do not, however, constitute a memoir. They are explorations of Munro’s life, but “not in an austere or rigorously factual way.” Things are made up. “You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.”

So this is a work of fiction. Autobiographical yes, and perhaps (though this is arguable) more personal than usual for Munro. But fiction all the same.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, “No Advantages,” tells of Munro’s Laidlaw ancestors leaving Scotland and settling in that part of Ontario later to be identified by readers as “Alice Munro country.” This part of the book is most obviously “full of . . . invention” – though there are old letters and journals quoted throughout. It is also rather dull stuff, faithful in spirit to the originals of the proud, silent, hard-working, and humorless natives of Munro country, and their construction of lives “monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence.”

But of course those epiphanic moments and visitations are what Munro’s fiction is all about. In “No Advantages” they are muffled in history. With the stories of the second part, “Home,” we are on more familiar ground. These are told in the first-person, and are based on characters and events in Munro’s own life. As the title of the section suggests, however, the focus is less on the person than the place.

Munro has always been a regional author, which is a designation that carries with it a certain attitude toward time as well as geography. Like a lot of regional authors, Munro’s outlook is conservative, even nostalgic, in its attachment to the past. Things have certainly changed from “those days” to “these days” (a formula that gets repeated here a bit too often), and not all of the change has been for the better. But while the bank barns and orchards have given way to industrial farms, the elemental character of the place – the physical landscape of Huron County and the character of its native rural population – is something that endures.

The View From Castle Rock is obviously a lot more than a conventional Ontario family history and memoir. But it is also a lot less than Munro’s best work. Which is not to totally discount it. Munro on a bad day is still a better read than most writers on a good one. But the usual magic music of her language is only playing faintly in the background here, dominated by easy notes of local colour and sentimental charm. Strong evidence that this great mythic ground – perhaps the greatest in all our literature – may finally be written out.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2006.


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