Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

I read Munro’s Runaway and decided she was a new favorite author. So I was happy to find another of her books on the notable books lists.

This one is more truly autobiographical than Runaway, and in fact almost historical. Munro traces her own family back several generations, learns what she can about them, and tells little stories about them here, before she reaches her own generation and settles on her own stories.

She freely admits to embellishment, even breaking into the middle of a story to say, “I can’t say for sure this happened”. It appears, from her stories about herself, that she has long enjoyed embroidering, but it’s more than that. She wonders, “might this have happened?” "what if that happened?" And maybe these things did happen, if not in the precise way she imagines them.

I did not love the early stories. I was missing something, the emotional element. It was there in some cases but clothed differently, lightly touched, and so the stories did not draw me in the way the Runaway stories did. However, as they came closer to her own generation the stories filled out more, seemed to have more substance. And when she got to her own time and her own life, they are just beautiful.

It was good to have the background, too, where she came from, her distant as well as immediate past. All of it fits into who we are.

I loved her descriptions of how she felt when butted up against different “classes”, when she herself qualified as “poor”. This might be a major theme of the book, in fact. Her distant relatives were far from rich, and it was a search for a better life that brought them across the Atlantic and into Canada (as well as into the US in some instances). From generation to generation, the family members worked hard and accepted who they were and their position in life, even as they knew they had the brains to equal the intellectual elite that might at times shun them. There is pride and a sense of place here, even down to the gifts offered for Alice's first wedding.

Alice herself stands out as a child, somehow does not quite fit in. She’s attractive enough, she's bright, she's thoughtful, but she likes to indulge in activities that are seen as "time-wasting" by others in the family and by the community at large. Reading, enjoying that thing called "nature", simply being alone with her thoughts. These things are not productive. When she finds a suitor her family breathes a sigh of relief.

I most enjoyed the intimate moments, and there are many, the honesty in how Munro looks at herself, the lack of self-pity or any idea that she had ever been "unfortunate". She even manages to trade on her upbringing, to use it to surprise, even shock, others, especially when she adds elements to it that were never there. I gained a great sense of her and I like her, even envy her.

No comments: