- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK: STORIES

By Alice Munro

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 349 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Alice Munro, the marvelous writer who happens to be Canadian (as opposed to “the marvelous

Canadian writer,” which could be read as a limiting description) has said that this book will be her last. If true, that would be a shame, for the stories in this collection all provide additional (and totally unnecessary) proof that her fiction is every bit as luminous, and illuminating, as ever.

Perhaps she could be convinced that to stop at 13 would be unlucky, which it certainly would be for readers, both those who know and love her and those for whom that special pleasure still awaits.

This book, like all but one of her others, is billed as a collection of stories, but, also like many of the others, it has the feel and movement of a novel. But then it also has the feel and movement of a memoir, a fact Ms. Munro mentions in a brief foreword.

Describing the “special set of stories” she has been writing on occasion for years, she says, “They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person.” And even though the stories contain events that never occurred, “You could say such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.” So what we have here is the best of both worlds.

“The View From Castle Rock” is divided into two parts, “No Advantages,” which has five stories, and “Home,” which has six, plus an epilogue that contains a single very short story. Read as a continuous narrative, they take a branch of the author’s family, the Laidlaws, from Scotland to Canada, by way of the American Midwest, a detour not made in real life.

In the first story, “No Advantages,” the unnamed narrator provides a contemporary, first person account of a search through the family’s Scottish roots, where she finds the gravestone of William Laidlaw, “my direct ancestor, born at the end of the seventeenth century, and known as Will O’Phaup. This was a man who took on, at least locally, something of the radiance of myth?”

She also finds the stone of a Robert Laidlaw, her great-great-great-great grandfather. “I was struck with a feeling familiar, I suppose, to many people whose long history goes back to a country far away from the place where they grew up. I was a native North American, in spite of my stored knowledge. Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined.”

In the second story, “The View from Castle Rock,” a very young Andrew Laidlaw is taken up to the highest spot of what is left of the Castle of Edinburgh by his grandfather who tells him that he is looking at America. Actually, he was looking at Fife, but that provides Andrew, and his descendents, with a fine story to tell over the years after the family has, in fact, emigrated to the land of what will be the author’s birth.

The account of the voyage by sea is marvelously told. The next two stories take place in Illinois, but in the long and beautifully moving tale entitled “Working for a Living,” the narrative has shifted to Canada, Ms. Munro’s own Huron County, circa 1940s, where all the rest of the stories are set. In the beginning of that story, which contains many autobiographical details, the father is a farmer turned trapper, who eventually raises foxes, whose skins his wife makes into fur pieces she sells at resorts that cater to American tourists.

In the middle of the story, the father and the couple’s young daughter, the narrator, are on their way to pick up the mother at the Pine Tree Hotel, where they hope to learn she has made a lot of sales. Afraid his old car will break down en route, he is taking the back roads, and praying with every passing mile.

When they arrive, they are in luck. As the father grows fond of saying in later years, “She saved the day”. But by the story’s end, the family has slipped back down the slippery slope familiar to so many families at that time. All the animals and the pens and the dreams are gone and the father is the night watchman at a local foundry. His daughter, the author’s stand-in, narrates the story with just the right welter of emotions one would expect in a 13 year old.

Near the end, there’s a fine paragraph that says it all: “My father always said he didn’t really grow up till he went to work in the Foundry. He never wanted to talk about the fox farm or the fur business, until he was old and could talk easily about almost anything. But my mother, walled in by increasing paralysis, was always eager to recall the Pine Tree Hotel, the friends and the money she had made there.” It’s a classic Alice Munro short story.

The stories in the second half of the book chronicle the coming of age of a young woman whose family situation ? reduced circumstances requiring slightly demeaning employment ? is similar to that of the family in the title story. Again we see example after example of Alice Munro’s powers of observation. In “Messenger,” the final story, which ties all the tales neatly together, the narrator visits graveyards in Joliet, Illinois and Blyth, Ontario, and finds the names of almost all the family members mentioned in the stories.

“Now all these names I have been recounting are joined to the living people in my mind, and of the lost kitchens, the polished nickel trim on the commodious presiding black stoves, the sour wooden drainboards that never quite dried, the yellow light of the coal-oil lamps.

The cream cans on the porch, the apples in the cellar, the stovepipes going up through the holes in the ceiling, the stable warmed in winter by the bodies and breath of the cows ? the cold waxed parlor where the coffin was put when people died. And in one of these houses ? I can’t remember whose ? a magic doorstep, a big mother-of-pearl seashell that I recognized as a messenger from near and far, because I could hold it to my ear ? when nobody was there to stop me ? and discover the tremendous pounding of my own blood, and of the sea.”

In an interview several years ago, Munro said, “I want the reader to feel something is astonishing. Not the ‘what happens,’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me ?The stories are not autobiographical, but they’re personal in that way. I seem to know only the things that I’ve learned. Probably some things through observation, but what I feel I know surely is personal.

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.”

Munro recently told The Toronto Star that she’s done writing because, at 75, she’s used up all her material and has nothing left to say. I hope she reconsiders and goes back to looking out that window ? and then telling us what she sees.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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