Sunday, September 28, 2008

The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro - Wendy's Review

These are stories. 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. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book. -From The View From Castle Rock, Introduction-

We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life. -From The View From Castle Rock, Epilogue-

The View From Castle Rock is an interesting combination of fiction and truth - Alice Munro delves into her family background, digging up her ancestors and her childhood to create a series of linked stories which explore family connections, poverty, adversity and understanding of ordinary lives as part of a bigger history.

The collection begins deep in the Ettrick Valley, just south of Edinburgh Scotland. Munro visits a cemetery on a cold, rainy day and locates the headstones of her relatives.

Also, among various Laidlaws, a stone bearing the name of Robert Laidlaw, who died at Hopehouse January 29th 1800 aged seventy-two years. Son of Will, brother of Margaret, uncle of James, who probably never knew that he would be remembered by his link to these others, any more than he would know the date of his own death. My great-great-great-great-grandfather. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 6-

In this first story, the reader is introduced posthumously to the characters who will make up future stories in the collection. Each new story moves the reader further into the present. In the title story: ‘The View From Castle Rock‘…Munro gives the reader a glimpse into what prompted the emmigration of her family from Scotland to Canada. A young boy follows his intoxicated father up the steep, uneven stone steps of an ancient castle and onto a roofless tower.

The sun was out now, shining on the stone heap of houses and streets below them, and the churches whose spires did not reach to this height, and some little trees and fields, then a wide silvery stretch of water. And beyond that a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in the sunlight and part in the shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

“So did I not tell you?” Andrew’s father said. “America. It is only a little bit of it, though, only the shore. There is where every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties, and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.” -From The View From Castle Rock, page 30-

Munro’s strength in these early stories is her ability to set place and time for the reader. She writes lush descriptions and peoples her prose with complex characters. When Walter, a young boy aboard a ship bound for America, writes in his journal ‘And this night in the year 1818 we lost sight of Scotland‘ the reader feels the anticipation as well as the sadness of saying good-bye to one’s homeland in search of a better life. Munro uses real documents (such as Walter’s journal) to help piece together the history of her family and there are times when it is difficult to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction.

And I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention.

The sighting of Fife from Castle Rock is related by Hogg, so it must be true. -From The View from Castle Rock, page 84-

Munro completes part I of her collection with the story ‘Working For A Living‘ which recollects of her father’s boyhood in the town of Blyth. Part II introduces Munro herself to the collection in the story ‘Fathers‘ - a painful look at the fine line between discipline and abuse and a girl’s relationship with her father.

Lying Under the Apple Tree‘ is about the coming of age of a young girl…the innocence of youth vanquished. The ideas of God, church values (morality) and sin weave themselves through this story. Munro also skillfully introduces nature into her theme of growing up and the recognition of one’s sexuality. Her use of dirt as a symbol is effective in introducing the concept of sex vs. a girl’s fantasies vs. the realities of love.

“Dirt,” my sister whispered to me when I got home. “Dirt on the back of your blouse.”

She watched me take it off in the bathroom, and scrub at it with a hard bar of soap. We didn’t have running hot water except in the winter, so she offered to get me some from the kettle. She didn’t ask me how the dirt had got there, she was only hoping to get rid of the evidence, keep me out of trouble. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 203-

In ‘Hired Girl‘ Munro continues to explore the idea of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. In addition she builds on the idea of place - physical place vs. one’s place in society. This concept of there being barriers between classes, is one of the main themes of Munro’s collection and in ‘Hired Girl‘ she emphasizes this idea.

I did not yet understand that maids didn’t have to find their way anywhere. They stayed put, where the work was. It was the people who made the work who could come and go. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 231-

The final stories of Munro’s collection are dedicated to her early marriage (’The Ticket‘), and her maturation into a woman who is capable of looking at her history and life in the harsh light of reality (’Home‘ and ‘What Do You Want to Know For?‘). Munro’s recollections of her father in his later years and the home where she grew up being modernized, are touching exposes on what it means to finally be an adult and no longer be protected by the innocence of childhood. Munro writes:

The past needs to be approached from a distance. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 332-

The View From Castle Rock does that - in exploring her roots, Munro has succeeded in creating a unique blend of stories which look at one family’s history in the context of a bigger picture of what it means to live on the edge of poverty, connect to family, and create a life with meaning and understanding.


1 comment:

moazzam sheikh said...

Fine review. As an aside, when you do mention that "class" is Munro's main concern, then, do spend more time on it. Why shy away from it? More exmaples. Does she succeed? Does she go deep enough? But thanks for pointing it out. I didn't know that about Munro and something has always held me back from her. That may change, now :)

- moazzam