Last year I had the pleasure of reading Alice Munro’s debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, and thoroughly enjoyed it. After finishing it, I vowed to spend more time reading Munro, so I picked up a used copy of The View from Castle Rock. While I think this is an exceptionally strong collection of short stories, for some reason I don’t think it as polished or accomplished as some of her other books. This might stem from the fact that these are “autobiographical” stories of some kind. In the Foreword, she talks about how she became interested in her family history and that the stories in this collection “were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person” (xiv). I know I’m not supposed to read these stories as autobiographical, yet for some reason I can’t help but do it anyways. And in doing it, it makes them something less than what they could be. Now, I’m not suggesting that autobiography is somehow less meaningful or artful than fiction, or that fiction is more powerful than truth. But I think that temptation to ask myself if this is really what Munro went through became an annoying sidethought that pestered me.
The first part of the book has stories about Munro’s ancestors and I’m not entirely sold on the strength of these parts. The title story is very strong, possibly the best in the book, but I found “No Advantages” somewhat ho-hum as Munro goes through her biography and explores the Ettrick Valley in Scotland. “Illinois” is strong in the sense that Munro shows her usual sense of ending that comes as a surprise yet wraps the whole story back in on itself. “The Wilds of Morris Township,” on the other hand, takes a step back and becomes a weird fable-like story of an in-bred family in Morris Township in rural Ontario. “Working for a Living” deals with Munro’s father’s fox farm and, in some ways, is like “Boys and Girls” from Dance of the Happy Shades, but in other ways is quite different. Maybe this first section felt too much like a formulaic CanLit novel: it deals with historical immigration to Canada, it shows how rough it was, and also how far along Canadians have come, all dosed in a kind of warm nostalgia that doesn’t demand too much of the reader. (This is probably a completely unfair assessment of this part of Munro’s book as she is far more nuanced than this caricature I’ve written suggests)
I felt that the second part of the collection which deals with Munro’s “childhood” works much better. “Lying Under the Apple Tree” is worth the price of the book alone. Seriously, this story is so good. It’s classic Munro in the sense that it deals with a young girl growing up in rural Ontario, dealing with her emerging sexuality and the complicated if constrained gender roles available to her. Here again, Munro pulls out a narrative swirl (it’s not a trick because it’s not meant to be duplicitous, yet there’s something showman-like about it) near the end of the story with Munro’s summer boyfriend and his employer Miriam McAlpin. I’m almost certain I’ve read “Hired Girl” before, a story which is set in the Muskokas where Munro worked as a hired girl at a summer cottage. This story has got all kinds of layers at work in it, and shows Munro’s many talents in character and setting. “Home” is heart-breaking as Munro’s father’s health declines and she is forced to bear witness to it.
Maybe I’m demanding too much of Munro. Maybe she can’t fill a book with solid gold, but instead needs to have some less than magnificent stories in between. And let’s be clear that those lesser stories would easily be the highlight of a lesser writer’s collection. Overall, The View from Castle Rock has some magnificent stories in it. It also has a kind of thematic unity in that it deals with one family’s history.
If you are already a Munro fan, then this book is for you. If not, I think I might look elsewhere first.
Munro, Alice. The View from Castle Rock. Toronto: Penguin, 2006. Print.