Remembering Alice Munro

Some time ago, more than a decade ago, I attended a fiction writing course. We were asked to bring the first page or so of some fiction we admired. I chose the first page of a short story by Alice Munro, called The Love of a Good Woman (1998).

For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.
Also there is a red box, which has the letters D.M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, “This box of optometrist’s instruments thought not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr D.M. Willems, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection.” (3)

There are so many questions raised by these two paragraphs. Why did Mr Willens drown? What was the catastrophe? Did anyone else drown in the river in 1951? Is there anything in this museum that is more dramatic than insulators, butter churns and Mr Willens’s optometry box? Does this rural setting have a secret? Will the anonymous donor make an appearance in the story? 

We were asked to re-write the passage using our own words, but following the pattern of the sentences, the rhythms, the clauses of the original. Both choosing the opening passage and the re-writing exercise underscored Alice Munro’s excellence as a writer.

This month, it was announced that she had died in the town where she had lived in Ontario, Canada. Although she had not written anything much for a decade it was still a sad moment to reflect on the passing of one of Canada’s great writers. She comes from the same era as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and did much to put Canadian women on the literary map. 

So I went back to my considerable collection of her published works and reread some of her short stories and remembered why I loved them, and why she so inspires me as I struggle with my own short stories. 

Alice Munro. Picture credit: Edward MacDowell: Medal acceptance speech in 2006 via Wiki Commons

Alice Munro

She was born in July 1931 and died at the age of 92 in May 2024. She had been writing since she was a teenager and had been recognised for her work. She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for her lifetime’s work. And in 2013 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work is set in rural Ontario where she lived.

Her first story was published when she 19 in 1950 while she was at college. The following year she married James Munro. They moved to Vancouver and remained together until they divorced in 1972. Those twenty years of marriage produced two children, and Alice Munro said she found it hard to write while also being the model 1950s and 1960s housewife and mother. 

After her marriage ended and responsibilities for her daughters were reduced, she wrote many stories, often producing a collection every four years or so, and others were printed in literary journals such as The New Yorker. She also taught at universities in Ontario. 

Her themes were attractive to readers from the ‘70s onwards: girls growing up in rural settings; the limiting of women through contemporary attitudes and customs; relationships; marriage; death; aging and the counter-culture of the 1960s.

The short stories of Alice Munro

When I began reading her stories in the 1980s, I was impressed with how complete and well-crafted they were. She clearly loved the genre, never needing to expand into longer fiction. Readers often observed that she managed to get as much into a story as any novelist writing in the longer form. She had a grasp of the least words required to provide the reader with the details they needed to understand a character or place. (See the description of the museum contents above, which tells you all you need to know about the kind of place that Walley is.) Here is a good example of a description of a person.

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they are missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you are racked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like treasure on a platter. Going upstairs after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling. (4)

In case you think her mother was too dour the next paragraph makes her quite human.

She was saved at a camp meeting when she was fourteen. […] She could tell stories about what went on at those meetings, the singing and hollering and wildness. She told about one old man getting up and shouting, “Come down, O Lord, come down among us now! Come down through the roof and I’ll pay for the shingles!” (4)

This is from an unusual story, The Progress of Love (1987), in that it’s told in the first person. It is also a good example of a skill she developed in which she moved the narrative within a story between periods of time. Another example of this is in Lichen, from the same collection, where a formerly married couple remember each other as they were. The husband realises that he is still bound to her through a long, shared past as he remembers a moment when he betrayed their marriage. The blending of different time periods is something Alice Munro excels in.

I love writing and reading short stories. Alice Munro is without peer in this genre. If you haven’t yet read any of her short stories, I encourage you to start now.

Related posts about Short Stories on Bookword

Short Stories – More Treats (July 2023)

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, short stories

10 Responses to Remembering Alice Munro

  1. Carole Jones

    Thank you for posting this tribute to Alice Munro. I have adored her and her work, ever since – decades ago – my favourite lecturer (English Degree at Hull – a seemingly most staid and reserved character: nicknamed ‘brain on a stick’) declared that he was a “complete and unashamed Alice Munro groupie”. I used to have all her multiple story collections, but… very, very stupidly… I took them to a charity shop when I was moving to Devon. I have recently been re-reading the stories in a ‘collected volume’ of her work… but, it’s no good… I will have to buy them all again, to see me through my old age.
    NB: I remember dancing round the house and garden, whooping at the top of my voice, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

  2. Susan Kavanagh

    What a lovely tribute! What collection would you recommend to a novice reader of Munro?

    • Caroline

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think it matters which collection you start with. There are gems in every one.
      Caroline

    • Carole Jones

      Excuse me adding my two-pennath, but there is a relatively recent paperback book of ‘Alice Munro’ stories, that includes works from all the separate collections of stories, that came out during her lifetime. I can’t remember the exact title – and I’ve just loaned my copy to a lovely friend – but any reputable bookshops should be able to tell you the title and order it for you. I bought mine from the wonderful ‘Harbour Bookshop’ in Kingsbridge: the lovely staff ordered it straight away and it was ready for collection a few days later. Heppy reading!

  3. Lynda Haddock

    Thanks Caroline. I haven’t read her for years but am now encouraged to pick up her books again, Lynda

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