Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me

By Valdes, Marcela | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me


Valdes, Marcela, The Virginia Quarterly Review


A Literary History of Alice Munro

Sometime in the late 19705, Alice Munro made a policy of refusing prizes that didn't specifically honor the quality of her fiction. When the Canadian government offered her one of its highest honors in 1983-an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, which would have entitled her to a pretty, gold-edged medal with the motto Desiderantes meliorem patriam ("They desire a better country") emblazoned around a gold maple leaf-Munro politely declined. She didn't feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity. Only awards that had been earned by particular books or by particular groups of books were okay. Munro was fifty-two by then, and several such awards had already been placed, like love letters, upon her books.

There would be many more to come. In the course of her career, Munro has won prizes from all over the English-speaking world, including the Giller Prize and three Governor General's Awards from Canada, the W. H. Smith Award from England, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, and the O. Henry Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award from the United States. By 1996 her work had been translated into thirteen different languages, and for decades now, her fans have fought with each other to produce better and better tributes to her work. Contemporaries such as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates have expressed extravagant appreciation. Major writers of the subsequent generation, including Mona Simpson, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Cunningham, have cited her as an important influence upon their work. In April 2005, Time magazine named her among the one hundred most influential people in the world.

At seventy-five, Munro has published more than a dozen books: Dance of the Happy Shades (1968); Lives of Girls and Women (1971); Something /Ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974); Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), published in the United States as The Beggar Maid; The Moons of Jupiter (1982); The Progress of Love (1986); Friend of My Youth (1990); Open secrets (1994); Selected Stones (1996); Love of a Good Woman (1998); Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001); No Love Lost (2003); and Runaway (2004). Now she is about to bring out her fourteenth: The View from Castle Rock.

All but one of these books are short story collections, and the bulk of these stories are set in Huron County, a small region of southwestern Ontario, in towns that resemble, with almost sociological precision, the town of Wingham, where Munro herself was born in 1931. Munro has claimed, at various points in her career, that her fictional towns-Walley, Carstairs, Logan, Hanratty, Dalgleish, Jubilee-are not ciphers for Wingham, but these denials have grown fainter and less frequent in the past twenty years. And for a long time, her Canadian fans have sensed a deeper truth. In Robert Thacker's biography of Munro, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (Douglas Gibson Books, 2005), he tells us that for years now Canadians have referred to Huron County as "Alice Munro County" and that the North Huron District Museum has abetted their "Munroviana" scavenger hunts by providing neat little pamphlets that outline a self-guided "Alice Munro Tour" of Wingham.

Thacker's book proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that many of Munro's stories are built upon fact, and that many of her characters are based upon members of her own family. This sort of detective work is useful-it clears away discussions of what is and isn't true-but it can be tedious to read. Does knowing that Munro's father once whipped her with a belt the way Rose's father whips her in "Royal Beatings" diminish or heighten our appreciation of that marvelous story? The answer, of course, is neither. The story remains separate from life, like a jewel chiseled from the earth, and whatever bruises Munro may have suffered as an adolescent, what matters on this side of the printing press is what she's done with them on the page. …

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