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The View from Castle Rock

by Alice Munro

I hope it can be said without sounding glib or condescending that one of the favourite literary genres for Canadians of a certain age and social background to try out is the family history/memoir. These volumes are typically self-published retirement projects, and are 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, a novel based on his family’s pioneer past. And now his daughter, Alice Munro, has taken up the task.

A coy foreword explains that the stories that comprise The View from Castle Rock 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 collection 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 fictionalized – though there are old letters and journals quoted throughout. It is also rather dull stuff, faithful in spirit to the proud, silent, hard-working, and humourless natives of Munro country, and their construction of lives “monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence.” Of course, those epiphanic moments and visitations are what Munro’s fiction is all about, but here they are muffled in history.

With the stories of the second part, “Home,” we are on more familiar ground. These are told in 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/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 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 Munro’s great mythic ground – perhaps the greatest in all our literature – may finally be written out.