I am currently editing a new book of criticism on the work of Alice Munro. The book includes fifteen original articles, especially commissioned for the collection, by noted scholars and critics from Canada, the U.S., England, and Ireland. My own task, in addition to soliciting, compiling, and editing the essays, was to write a brief biographical sketch of Munro and a critical essay expressing my own approach to her work. I will talk more about the book as it gets nearer publication, but today I wanted to respond to a piece of “personal history” Munro published recently in The New Yorker, entitled “Dear Life: A Childhood Visitation” (September 19, 2011).
My initial interest in the piece was to determine if Munro had included any “new” information about her life that I should add to my biographical sketch. I have read rather carefully the updated paperback edition of Robert Thacker’s wonderful full-length (600 pages plus) biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (2005/2011) (Thacker has contributed a most helpful analysis of Munro criticism to the book I am editing). I have also read all the interviews and occasional pieces in which Munro has talked about her life, as well as her daughter Sheila’s book Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro (2001). I have also, of course, read Munro’s The View from Castle Rock (2006), which is subtitled “Stories,” but which includes several “personal history” or “memoir” pieces. She does not always make clear distinctions between them.
And that’s what I would like to think a bit about in this post—the relationship between pieces that Munro calls “stories” and the pieces she calls “personal history,” focusing particularly on her recent piece “Dear Life.”
In the “Foreword” to The View from Castle Rock, Munro says, “About ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family whose name was Laidlaw.” After doing research and reading in the history of her Scottish family, Munro says she put the material together over the years, “and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories.”
Not stories, mind you, but “something like stories.” Munro also says that during these years she was writing a “special set of stories,” which she did not include in the books of short stories she was publishing because she felt they did not belong. “They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person.” Munro explains that in other first-person stories she had drawn on personal material, but then “I did anything I wanted to do with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story.”
However, she says that in this “special set of stories” (included in the second half of Castle Rock), she was doing something more like what a memoir does—“exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.” Munro says that so many of these characters moved so far beyond their beginnings in real life that she could not remember who they were to start with. She concludes, “You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.”
“Dear Life” does not reveal anything about Alice Munro’s childhood beyond what she and Robert Thacker have already disclosed. However, it does offer some insight into how Munro sees the relationship between “memoir” and fiction. Although “Dear Life” seems to fit into the category of memoir—“exploring a life” in a factual way, with the self at the center—given Munro’s irresistible compulsion to write stories, this “personal history” often merges into the thematically rhetorical stuff of fiction.
I love the rhythm of Munro’s sentences. Note this opening: “I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.” She could have said, more directly: “When I was young I lived at the end of a road that seemed long to me.” But the lilt would have been lost, don’t you think? And she could have opened the memoir in many ways, but she chose to open it with her memory of the two bridges that separated her home from the “real town.” And with these bridges, we are made aware of her early sense of separation from the activity of town life.
We are also introduced in the first paragraph to the individuality of this little girl, for one of the bridges is a wooden walkway which sometimes had a plank missing “so you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.” I am glad that the little girl likes the gap made by the missing plank, for it does not frighten her as it might some children; it fascinates her.
If you have read Munro’s fiction, you will recognize the source of some of her stories in this piece of “personal history,” the most familiar being the whippings by her father for “talking back” converted to fiction in “Royal Beating” in The Beggar Maid. At certain points in “Dear Life,” Munro reminds us that what we are reading here is not fiction. For example, when she describes the house of a man named Royal Grain, which was like a “dwarf’s house in a story,” she suggests that although he could be the stimulus for a story here he is not, for she says the man “does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.”
I like this little aside, for in it Munro indicates at least one way that remembered real life might mutate into a story. It is as if she finds it hard to resist the writer’s urge to spin off from the “dwarf house” and the “troll’s name” and start a story. The distinction she makes here between something that is “only life” and something that might be much more significant is a helpful one, it seems to me, for it suggests that real life is “only life” because it does not mean anything, a story is more than real life because what makes it a story is some meaningful significance the author discovers in it.
Munro refers to the difference between real life and fiction again later when she describes the misfortunes her family faced--her father’s loss of his business and her mother’s Parkinson’s disease—commenting, “You would think this is all too much…. It wouldn’t do in fiction.” It is as though that Munro, and probably all writers, finds it difficult to think about life without thinking about the possibilities for fiction. It is as though writers like Munro experience almost a constant compulsion to convert everything into story, to see the world always in words and sentences and meaningful sequences.
In “Dear Life,” Munro finally gives into the compulsion to convert events in the world into meaningful fiction when she recounts a story her mother told her about “a crazy old woman named Mrs. Netterfield.” The first story the mother tells focuses on a day when the grocer forgot to put butter into the old woman’s order. When the delivery boy is opening the back of the truck, the old woman notices the butter is missing and goes after the boy with a hatchet, which made him drive away without closing the back door. Munro says that some things about the story puzzle her, though she did not think about them at the time, for example how the old woman knew the butter was missing and why she happened to have a hatchet with her. However, when Munro thinks about the story as a writer, she considers the issue of plausibility that governs fiction, but may have nothing to do with real life.
It is with the second story about old Mrs. Netterfield (which takes up roughly a third of “Dear Life”) that Munro begins to transmute “only life” into a story. She begins it in her writerly voice recalling, not the experience (for she was too young to remember), but her mother’s telling of it. “It was a beautiful day in the fall. I had been set out to sleep in my baby carriage on the little patch of new lawn.” The mother is in the house washing baby clothes by hand. Since there is no window in the front, she has to cross the room to look out a window to check on baby Alice, a view which let her see the driveway. At this point, Munro the writer steps in with her inevitable questions: “Why did my mother decide to leave her washing and wringing out in order to look at the driveway?” After considering possible reasons, including watching for hr husband to come home with groceries for something she was making for supper (and an aside about how his family did not approve of her fancy cooking, or her fancy dress for that matter), Munro returns to what her mother saw—old Mrs. Netterfield coming down the lane. Then, thinking like a writer, she considers the possibilities—i.e., not what she knows, but what she thinks may be the case: “My mother must have seen Mrs. Netterfield at least a few times before she noticed her walking down our lane. Maybe they had never spoken. It’s possible though, that they had. My mother might have made a point of it, even if my father had told her that it was not necessary. It might even lead to trouble, was what he probably would have said.”
The mother runs out and grabs baby Alice out of the carriage and carries her into the house, locking the door behind her. “But there was a problem, wasn’t there, with the kitchen door? As far as I know, it never had a proper lock. There was just a custom, at night, of pushing one of the kitchen chairs against that door, and tilting it with the chair back under the doorknob, in such a way that anybody pushing it to get in would have made a dreadful clatter.”
Then, writer that she is, Munro asks further questions about motivation, inner thoughts, background information that she does not know from “only life,” but must invent if she were to write a story: “Did my mother think of any weapon, once she got the doorknob wedged in place? Had she ever picked up a gun, or loaded one, in her life? Did it cross her mind that the old woman might just be paying a neighborly visit? I don’t think so. There would have been a difference in the walk, a determination I the approach of the woman coming down the lane. It’s possible that my mother prayed, but she did not mention it.”
The mother sees the old woman investigate the blanket in the carriage and fling it to the ground; she hides in the dumbwaiter, listening to the old woman walking around the house and stopping at every downstairs window. Then Munro as writer writer poses another question. After noting that the old woman did not have to stretch to see inside because she was not very tall, Munro asks: “How did my mother know this? It was not as if she were running around with me in her arms, hiding behind one piece of furniture after another, peering out, distraught with terror, to see the staring eyes and maybe a wild grin.” Munro says her mother stayed by the dumbwaiter because, “What else could she do?” She thinks her mother would not have gone into the cellar because it would have been more horrible to be trapped down there in the dark, and she could not have gone upstairs because she would have had to cross the room “where the beatings would take place in the future, but which was not so bad after the stairs were closed in.”
Munro says the earlier versions of her mother’s story of old Mrs. Netterfield end here with the old woman peering in the windows, but that in later versions the old woman gets impatient and goes away. What the mother calls “the visitation of old Mrs. Netterfield” actually seems to end for Munro when she asks her mother at some point what became of the old woman. Her mother’s stark reply: “They took her away. She wasn’t left to die alone.”
But it is not the end of the story for Munro the writer. She tells about when she was married and living in Vancouver, but still getting the weekly paper from home, she sees the name Netterfield as that of the maiden name of a woman living in Portland, Oregon who has written a simple and sentimental poem about living in Munro’s home town. Munro realizes from reading the poem and the letter that she had lived in the same house Munro lived in. Munro, the writer, considers this: “Is it possible that my mother never knew this, never knew that our house was where the Netterfield family had lived and that the old woman was looking in the windows of what had been her own house?” Munro then considers some of the “perhaps” that can convert a mere event into a story, thinking that the woman who wrote the poem was old Mrs. Netterfield’s daughter who “perhaps” came to take her away. “Perhaps that daughter, grown and distant, was who she was looking for in the baby carriage. Just after my mother had grabbled me up, as she said, for dear life.” And this, of course, where Munro the writer discovers just the right multi-layered title for her little memoir.
Munro ends this “childhood visitation” by describing an event in her mother’s life that she later converted into a fiction: “When my mother was dying, she got out of the hospital somehow,a t night, and wandered around town until someone who didn’t know her at all spotted her and took her in. If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true.”
But, of course, those who know Munro’s fiction will know that this last event did become fiction; it concludes the story “The Peace of Utrecht” in Dance of the Happy Shades. When the narrator of the story hears of her mother getting out of bed and putting on her gown and slippers and go out into the January snow to make her flight from the hospital, she thinks this: “The snow, the dressing gown and slippers, the board across the bed. It was a picture I was much inclined to resist. Yet I had no doubt this was true, all this was true and exactly as it happened. It was what she would do; all her life as long as I had known her led up to that flight.”
“The Peace of Utrecht” is an important story in Munro’s fiction. As Robert Thacker points out in his biography, it is the first of her stories to deal with the facts and memory of her mother. The story appeared a year after her mother’s death; Munro says it is her “first really painful autobiographical story…the first time I wrote a story that tore me up.” It is a story she says she did not want to write, but she told an interviewer it was the first story she says she absolutely had to write. Thacker says the story “represents Munro’s imaginative homecoming to Wingham after her years away in Vancouver, home to the personal material that would subsequently become her hallmark.”