I vividly remember my first look into the literary world of Alice Munro. I was in my first year of university at Brescia College in London, Ontario and my thoughtful professor had enough foresight to include The Lives of Girls and Women on the syllabus. That book was a wonder and changed how I read short stories forever.
For those who do not know about Alice Munro, you should. Most recently I introduced her flavourful writing style to my book club when we read Dear Life published in 2012. I have to admit, I was shocked many of these women who I admire greatly had never read anything by one of my favourite writers. How could this be? The average age of book club members is 65 and I was astonished she had been missed by these well-read women.
Munro is the kind of writer that has a unique voice. Her characters come alive in their simplicity and complicated lives. She writes equally in a woman’s voice or a man’s or a child’s for that matter. Not all writers can successfully pull that off. When I read stories by Munro I am transported to that place and time easily. She writes paying special attention to local colour, dialogue and setting as she tells each story. The details are memorable long after the book closes.
“His tan looked like pancake makeup, though it was probably all real. There was something theatrical about him altogether, tight and glittery and taunting. Something obscene about his skinniness and sweet, hard smile.”
-from the story Mischief from Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)
Munro is an author I have come to greatly admire as each of her books gets better and better with time. I have always appreciated the characters she creates in her stories. From my first meeting with Munro through her character Del in The Lives of Girls and Women to other characters like Flo and Rose who grappled with the realities and hardships of growing up. Munro was not afraid to write female characters who were challenging sexual stereotypes, engaging in risk-taking behaviour and really, enjoying an odyssey of self-discovery. This is most likely why her stories resonated with me in that first year English class.
As a Canadian, I also have a deep appreciation for the settings that Munro chooses in her stories. Some are just SO Canadian that I can feel like I’ve been there before. Some are reflective of small town Ontario while others venture into bigger cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
“Now there was a village. Or suburb, perhaps you could call it, because she did not see any Post Office or even the most uncompromising convenience store. The settlement lay four or five streets deep along the lake, with small houses strung close together on small lots. Some of them were undoubtedly summer places
— the windows already boarded up, as was always done for
-From Runaway published in 2004.
As much as I admire all of Alice Munro’s books I probably liked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage the best. Published in 2001, this collection of nine stories is a work of literary art. Each character so uniquely different telling a story that is their own. The dialogue is sharp and quick-witted when called for. Her characters are described in minute detail: “…a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture. …Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.” Amazing. I can see her now. As a reader who readily enjoys descriptive writing, Munro is a marvel.
One summer my family and I accidentally came across The Alice Munro Literary Gardens in her hometown of Wingham, Ontario. For a bibliophile like me, this was like seeing a rock star. All of her works were there with a beautiful small garden to wander through. Munro has also received numerous awards for her body of work and many of the attributes were on hand to view. She is a much celebrated and admired writer of my country.
As I close this blog post I credit Alice Munro for cultivating my love of the short story. It is not an easy feat as a writer to achieve a successful short story that is engaging and entertaining. Because of her, I have sought out short stories and discovered new authors along the way which is one of the best things about reading. I urge you to find an Alice Munro collection and read it. She is engaging, witty and writes with considerable depth and consideration. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do.