The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

In the Foreword to this latest collection of stories, Munro writes that although she has mined the history of her family for these tales she does not always provide readers with factual truth, that is, “not enough to swear on”. But Munro has been providing readers with fictions imbued with rigorous emotional truth for decades. She considers truth and fiction as two streams that in this book “came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel”. The question for the reviewer is one of navigation — how do I paddle this half-real and half-imaginary form? The answer, which Munro’s characters demonstrate again and again in these stories, is to recognize that family life is a narrative act. The stories of our day we tell around the kitchen table, the amplified legends of previous generations, and the darker chapters we edit are all equally true.

Munro divides the book into two parts. Stories about her Scottish relatives comprise the first half. She begins with the legends of Will O’Phaup, the last man in the Ettrick Valley who encountered the fairies and lived to provide heroic tales that pass among the subsequent generations. Though she writes that “self-dramatization got short shrift in our family,” Munro finds that she is not the first of her clan to write about the lived experience. James Hogg, author of The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, was a first cousin of Munro’s relative William Laidlaw. Diarists and letter-writers followed, including a family memoir by Munro’s father.

Eventually, the distant figures and patchwork of legends are developed into more traditional stories such as “The View from Castle Rock”. Munro begins to imagine (she calls herself a “liar”) the thoughts and intentions of her relatives who decided to cross the ocean and settle in “America” (partly in the U.S., and finally all together in Canada.)

In “Illinois,” the best story in the first section, William, the rebellious Laidlaw brother who settled in the U.S. rather than Canada, has died of cholera the same day his wife, Mary, delivers her daughter to add to the brood of young sons. William’s brother Andrew dutifully travels to Illinois to bring Mary and her children north. A mean prank results in the disappearance of Mary’s newborn daughter from the roadside inn where the travelers spend the night. The family blames Becky Johnson, a half-white and half-aboriginal woman who had been helping Mary, for the abduction.

Here, Munro brings forth two familiar tropes in Canadian literature. The “noble savage,” a Native person who is helpful and selfless yet ultimately subservient to her European ‘betters’ is combined with the more elusive ‘half-breed’ figure who haunts the borderlands. Becky’s mixed heritage threatens to destabilize the racialized sense of order. Mary’s son reports that he saw Becky following the family and promises next time to chase after her. Mary responds that he “don’t know the bush like they do, you could lose yourself like that … Indian people have their own business we don’t ever know about. They’re not telling us everything they’re up to …” These historical stories capture the wildness and fear of the settler experience.

The act of storytelling (both the memories of the Old World and the fears — real and imagined — of the new world) becomes instrumental to the formation of the Canadian identity. In the book’s second half we settle in familiar Munro country. Much of her canon centers on Huron County in southern Ontario where Munro was raised and still spends much of her time. Readers of previous Munro stories will recognize both the geographic and psychological landscape. In fact, this book serves as something of a concordance to her collected works, as if we have seen the essential vault from which so much of her fiction has been sourced. For a writer renowned for personal stories, these may be Munro’s most forthcoming first-person narratives.

In “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” Munro writes of a young woman’s burgeoning sexual desire. The apple tree in springtime, full of heavy blossoms, becomes the image of that desire. Considering that the story centers on a romance with a randy young member of the Salvation Army, the tree also stands in for an ironic image of Eve’s temptation. Here, Munro describes the protagonist in relation to her would-be lover. She writes,

I did not speak much about myself and I did not listen to him all that closely. His talk was like a curtain of easy rain between me and the trees, the light and shadows on the road, the clear-running creek, the butterflies, and all that part of myself that would have paid attention to these things if I had been alone … I was half-hypnotized, not just by the sound of his voice but by the bright breadth of his shoulders in a clean, short-sleeved shirt, by his tawny throat and thick arms. He had washed himself with Lifebuoy soap — I knew the smell of it as everybody did — but washing was as far as most men went in those days, they didn’t bother about the sweat that would accumulate in the near future. So I could smell that too. And just faintly the smell of horses, bridles, barns, and hay.

Munro’s plain-spoken language captures the landscape and its people with unflinching honesty. She writes of the past but rarely, if ever, devolves into saccharine nostalgia — she writes of body odour, drowned kittens, poverty — and not without compassion, or at least the recognition that while her own life has taken her away, she is nonetheless integral to these stories and this home a lasting part of her.

She explores the unsteady line of truth and fiction with the deftness of a master navigator, and there are few instances where the borders show. One story, “Fathers,” does not hold its collection of paternal anecdotes as tightly as others. Yet even here the quality of the writing, Munro’s classic handling of characterization, makes this a minor complaint.

Ultimately, Munro offers a refreshing take on the personal narrative in a time when the hyped memoir and calls for Truth reign. The book becomes both a family history and an astute, exciting exploration of the form itself. Perhaps Munro holds the answer to our concerns regarding the responsibilities of the memoirist. Should we admit the imagination and stop fussing over facts? The View from Castle Rock makes a convincing argument for putting the requisite disclaimer at the front of the book and letting the writer’s craft bring home the essential truth.

RATING 8 / 10