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A new collection of stories by Alice Munro is always a major event. This new collection — her most personal to date — is no exception.
Alice Munro’s stories are always wonderful and so ingrained with truths about life that readers always want to know where they came from. In this book, Alice Munro tells us.
In her Foreword (an unusual feature in itself), she explains how she, born Alice Laidlaw in Ontario, in recent years became interested in the history of her Laidlaw ancestors. Starting in the wilds of the Scottish Borders, she learned a great deal about a famous ancestor, born around 1700, who, as his tombstone records, “for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day.” She traced the family’s history with the help of that man’s nephew, the famous writer James Hogg, finding to her delight that each generation of the family had produced a writer who wanted to record what had befallen them.
In this way, she was able to follow the family’s voyage to Canada in 1818, and their hard times as pioneers — once a father dies on the same day that a daughter is born in the same frontier cabin. “I put all this material together over the years,” Alice tells us, “and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something almost like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations.”
As the book goes down through the generations, we come to Robert Laidlaw, Alice’s father, and then, at the book’s heart, the stories become first-person stories, set during her lifetime. So is this a memoir? No. She drew on personal experiences, “but then I did anything I wanted to with this material, because the chief thing I was doing was making a story.”
The resulting collection of stories range from the title story — where through a haze of whiskey Alice’s ancestors gaze north from Edinburgh Castle at the Fife coast, believing that it is North America — all the way to the final story, where we travel with “Alice Munro” today. In the author’s words, these stories “pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.”
All of them are Alice Munro stories. There could be no higher praise.
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Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published eleven previous books.
During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the W.H. Smith Prize, the National Book Circle Critics Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Lannan Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Rea Award for the Short Story. In Canada, she has won the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award, and the Libris Award.
Alice Munro and her husband divide their time between Clinton, Ontario, and Comox, British Columbia.
About ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family, whose name was Laidlaw. There was a good deal of information lying around about them – really an unusual amount, considering that they were obscure and not prosperous, and living in the Ettrick Valley, which the Statistical Account of Scotland (1799) describes as having no advantages. I lived in Scotland for a few months, close to the Ettrick Valley, so I was able to find their names in the local histories in the Selkirk and Galashiels Public Libraries, and to find out what James Hogg had to say about them in Blackwoods Magazine. Hogg’s mother was a Laidlaw, and he took Walter Scott to see her when Scott was collecting ballads for The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. (She supplied some, though she later took offense at their being printed.) And I was lucky, in that every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections. Scotland was the country, remember, where John Knox had decided that every child should learn to read and write, in some sort of village school, so that everybody could read the Bible.
It didn’t stop there.
I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.
During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted to with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.
These are stories.
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. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.
A letter from his brothers reached William Laidlaw in the Highlands sometime early in the eighteen-thirties. They complained of not hearing from him for three years, and told him that his father was dead. It did not take him very long, once he was sure of that, to start making his plans to go to America. He asked for and was given a letter of reference from his employer, Colonel Munro (perhaps one of the many Highland landowners who had made sure of profitable sheep-rearing by hiring Borders men as their factors). He waited until Mary’s fourth baby boy was born – this was my great-grandfather Thomas – and then he bundled up his family and set out. His father and his brothers had spoken of going to America, but when they said that, it was really Canada they meant. William spoke accurately. He had discarded the Ettrick Valley for the Highlands without the least regret, and now he was ready to get out from under the British flag altogether–he was bound for Illinois.
They settled in Joliet, near Chicago.
There in Joliet, on the 5th of January, in either 1839 or 1840, William died of cholera, and Mary gave birth to a girl. All on the one day.
She wrote to the brothers in Ontario – what else could she do? – and in the late spring when the roads were dry and the crops were planted Andrew arrived with a team of oxen and a cart, to carry her and her children and their goods back to Esquesing.
“Where is the tin box?” said Mary. “I saw it last thing before I went to bed. Is it in the cart already?”
Andrew said that it was not. He had just come back from loading the two rolls of bedding, wrapped up in canvas.
“Becky?” said Mary sharply. Becky Johnson was right there, rocking back and forth on a wooden stool with the baby in her arms, so surely she might have spoken if she knew the whereabouts of the box. But she was in a sulky mood, she had said barely a word that morning. And now she did nothing but shake her head slightly, as if the box and the packing and loading and the departure, which was close at hand, meant nothing to her.
“Does she understand?” said Andrew. Becky was half Indian and he had taken her for a servant, till Mary explained that she was a neighbor.
“We’ve got them too,” he said, speaking as if Becky had no ears in her head. “But we don’t have them coming in and sitting down in the house like that.”
“She has been more help to me than anybody,” Mary said, trying to shush him. “Her father was a white man.”
“Well,” said Andrew, as if to say there were two ways of looking at that.
Mary said, “I can’t think how it would disappear from in front of my eyes.”
She turned away from her brother-in-law to the son who was her chief comfort.
“Johnnie, did you happen to see the black tin box?”
Johnnie was sitting on the lower bunk, now bare of bedclothes, keeping a watch over his younger brothers Robbie and Tommy, as his mother had asked him to. He had invented a game of dropping a spoon between the slats onto the plank floor, and having them see who could pick it up first. Naturally Robbie always won, even though Johnnie had asked him to slow down and give his smaller brother a chance. Tommy was in such a state of excitement that he did not seem to mind. He was used to this situation anyway, as the youngest.
Johnnie shook his head, preoccupied. Mary expected no more than that. But in a moment he spoke, as if just recollecting her question.
“Jamie’s setting on it. Out in the yard.”
Not only sitting on it, Mary saw when she hurried out, but he had covered it with his father’s coat, the coat Will had been married in. He must have got that out of the clothes trunk that was already in the cart.
“What are you doing?” cried Mary, as if she couldn’t see. “You’re not supposed to touch that box. What are you doing with your father’s coat after I packed it up? I ought to smack you.”
She was aware that Andrew was watching, and likely thinking that was a poor enough reprimand. He had asked Jamie to help him load the trunk and Jamie had done so, reluctantly, but then he had slipped away, instead of hanging around to see what more he could help with. And yesterday, when Andrew first arrived, the boy had pretended not to know who he was. “There’s a man out in the road with a cart and an ox team,” he had said to his mother, as if no such thing was expected and was of no concern to him.
Andrew had asked her if the lad was all right. All right in the head, was what he meant.
“His father’s dying was a hard matter for him,” she said.
Andrew said, “Aye,” but added that there’d been time to get over it, by now.
The box was locked. Mary had the key to it around her neck. She wondered if Jamie had meant to get into it, not knowing that. She was ready to weep.
“Put the coat back in the trunk,” was all she could say.
In the box were Will’s pistol and such papers as Andrew needed concerning the house and land, and the letter Colonel Munro had written before they left Scotland, and another letter, that Mary herself had sent to Will, before they were married. It was in reply to one from him – the first word she’d had since he left Ettrick, years before. He said in it that he remembered her well and had thought that by now he would have heard of her wedding. She had replied that in such case she would have sent him an invitation.
“Soon I will be like the old almanacks left on the shelf, that no person will buy,” she wrote. (But to her shame, when he showed her this letter long afterwards, she saw that she had spelled “buy” by. Living with him, having books and journals around, had done a power of good for her spelling.)
It was true that she was in her twenty-fifth year when she wrote that, but she was still confident of her looks. No woman who thought herself lacking in that way would have dared such a comparison. And she had finished off by inviting him, as plain as any words could do it. If you should come courting me, she had said, if you should come courting me some moonlight night, I think that you should be preferred before any.
What a chance to take, she said when he showed her that. Did I have no pride?
Nor I, he said.
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