05 June 2007

The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

This book is a collection of short stories with a common theme. Munro's ancestors came to Canada and the USA from Scotland, and this collection is about them, and their influence on the narrator of the more contemporary stories in the second part, whom I suspect to be at least approximately the author.

Castle Rock is divided into a Foreword, Two Parts, and an Epilogue. Part One is entitled "No Advantages," Part Two "Home." The Epilogue contains a single piece, "Messenger."

"No Advantages" is also the name of the introductory piece in Part One. It describes Ettrick, "...fifty miles due south of Edinburgh, and thirty or so miles north of the English border..." The story is prefaced by an epigraph attributed to "The Statistical Account of Scotland, 1799" that describes Ettrick as a "parish" that "possesses no advantages." The narrator visits Ettrick in modern times, it seems, looking for signs of her ancestors. One of these is William Laidlaw, also known as "Will O'Phaup." Will O'Phaup was believed by some to be one of the last human beings to have seen fairies. Munro hastens to clarify the true nature of the "little people:"

"Fairies were not blithe and captivating. They belonged to the olden times...the truly dark times...of bad powers and evil confusion, and their attentions were oftener than not malicious, or even deadly."

We shift from this ancient evil to a description of the famous Presbyterian preacher Thomas Boston. This formidable Protestant preached fiery sermons, and wrote a book "...said to stand next to the Bible in every pious home in Scotland..." Boston wrestled with his own unworthiness, examining his own soul and finding it lacking. "So it seems strange to me that Thomas Boston should have been the minister whom Will O'Phaup listened to every Sunday..."

"The past is full of contradictions...perhaps equal to those of the present..." This is, as Munro reminds us in her Foreword, a story -- but it has the ring of truth, the unswallowable dissonant nature of a recounting of How Things Were.

Will O'Phaup had grandsons, James Hogg and James Laidlaw. James Hogg became a writer. Laidlaw had a daughter and five sons. His son William, says Munro, "...will be my great-great-grandfather..."

James Laidlaw, "a modern man," and a lonely widower, becomes interested in emigrating to America. He is "scornful of the place where he was born." And so prepared, we go to the next story.

"The View From Castle Rock."

The story begins with a trip to Edinburgh for Andrew and his father. Andrew's childhood memory of this trip is of climbing the great tower at Edinburgh Castle, and from that great height they look out across

"...a wide silvery stretch of water. And beyond that a pale green and grayish-blue land ... a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

"'So did I not tell you?' Andrew's father said. 'America... you have looked over at America... God grant you one day you will see it closer up and for yourself.'"

And later:

"He knew he was not looking at America, though it was some years before he was well enough acquainted with maps to know that he had been looking at Fife."

But to America they did go, in 1818 -- James with his children Andrew, Walter, and Mary, Andrew's wife Agnes, and little James, the grandson, not yet two years old. the passage seems reasonable, considering the age in which it was accomplished, but it is not uneventful. Young Walter has a journal where he records the adventures as well as the mundane details of their journey. Nine days into the voyage he reports the death, and sea burial, of a child.

Agnes, Andrew's wife, gives birth to a daughter, who "can say all her life that she was born at sea."

“Poor Mary” (“...indeed the meagreness and timidity of many of the women in their family has caused that word to be attached to [their] names ...”) spends most of her time caring for her young nephew, James.

“He does not have to whimper or complain – she knows his feelings by the way he digs his little knees into her.”
“She and he communicate in a half-and-half language – half her teaching and half his invention. She believes that he is one of the cleverest children ever born into the world.”

And Mary, Oh, Mary...

“Mary ... thinks that women ... lead an appalling life... She will never forget her own mother, who lay in bed out of her mind with a fever...till she died, three days after Walter was born. She had screamed at the black pot hanging over the fire, thinking it was full of devils.”

In the course of this story James Laidlaw changes from the adventurous one who impels them all to leave Scotland for the New World, to the old story-telling patriarch, pointing out the past, deprecating the present--regret, remorse, or just the situation changing his personality.

"Illinois."

William Laidlaw, James's brother, settled in Joliet, Illinios in the 1830s with his wife Mary and their children. "There, in Joliet, on the 5th of January, either 1839 or 1840, William died of cholera, and Mary gave birth to a girl."

"The Wilds of Morris Township."

"William's children grew up in Esquesing, [Ontario] among their cousins." When they were grown, they set off on their own "for another wilderness." This was the settlement of Morris. These brothers and sisters and spouses were amazingly hard-working, incredibly sober and frugal people.

These hard-nosed Scots practically dare the land not to allow them to make a living from it. It is this victory over Nature that seems to transcend their lives, and it is perhaps the root of the disdain for people enamored of "nature" that Munro relates in the stories placed nearer our own time.

"Working For A Living."

The narrator's father makes a living as a fur trapper, fur farmer, later works in a foundry, and at the end of his life becomes a writer. This is a complex tale about a couple who marry and make their way in a small town in Canada, how they survive the Depression and the time after, and what this all does to them. And the theme of life, and death, and continuance, is continued.

Part Two

"Fathers."

In which three fathers are described, an abusive monster, a man who is perhaps too solicitious toward his child, and the narrator's own, "...the parent I sorely wanted to please." Or at least this is how they seem to be, at first.

Monsters beget monsters. The narrator reveals some truth about her own insincerity, her willingness to appease her parents in order to manipulate them. And she tells us some of the dark side of being a child, of ganging up on an unpopular classmate, not wanting to be associated with an unpopular child.

"Fathers" could have been entitled "Fathers and Children," or perhaps "Our Fathers."

"Lying Under the Apple Tree."

The narrator is a little older now, and showing some signs of the young woman she will become. This story is one in which she mentions how unacceptable it is in her culture to talk about "Nature," although the people in this rural Canadian town are surrounded on all sides by nothing else, and live within it -- but this is the type of person, we would think, who puts on airs, wastes time, and perhaps thinks she's a little better than those around her. Some of the values of Munro's Scottish ancestors are apparent here.

There is also the adventure of an early adolescent love attraction, not shy of the physical, which has an interesting outcome.

Munro perhaps tells us something of her own childhood and adolescence, of the events and circumstances that have molded this writer, and reader -- in the end, shocked and disappointed by her young man, she dives into a book, any book, and doesn't come out.

"Hired Girl."

The narrator tells about a summer job as a maid to some wealthy folks living on one of the Great Lakes. "I did not have the grace or fortitude to be a servant." Again, a book is her refuge at the end.

"The Ticket."

The Fall before her wedding, the narrator cares for her mother at home. Her mother is ill with Parkinson's disease; this has been mentioned before in some of these stories. She is close to her Grandmother, and Aunt Charlie; the latter is sewing her wedding dress. She compares social and economic classes between her family and that of her fiance, jumping into the future of their wedded life together and comparing wedding presents:

"The presents from my husband's family were packed in the shops where they were purchased, and shipped to Vancouver...

"Nothing in my trunks ... came up to scratch...

"But my husband did concede that a good job had been done with the packing... when I tried putting some of these things where they could be seen ... he had to speak plainly. And I myself saw the point."

She compares three marriages, while contemplating her own, about to begin. These are those of her parents, her grandparents, and her Aunt Charlie. Of the three, it seems that Charlie's may have been the one to be envied. Although they never had children, "Their affection was legendary."

"Home."

Later in life, after her mother's death, the narrator goes home to visit her father and his wife in their home, the home of her youth. Munro describes the remoteness and insignificance of their town by describing the bus trip that she takes to get to it, which requires three buses, each of which descends in comfort and efficiency.

Her father's new wife is a rough and practical woman, in some ways coarse, but at the same time sentimental about her husband, and her old dog. During the visit, her father is ill enough to go to the hospital, but at the end of the story it seems that he will be all right, at least for a while.

Munro effectively paints the texture and color of this remote rural place, and we know her connection to it and her separation from it. In the ending, she describes a vision from "the worst winter of my childhood, which was 1935." It is nothing spectacular, just a clear memory of a cold night when she helped her father milk the cow, the cow which died that awful winter, and the gathering cold, "which killed all the chestnut trees, and many orchards."

"What Do You Want to Know For?"

In this story the narrator reminds us of her own mortality, as she is seeing a physician about some suspicious lumps in her breast.

"So this is the first time.
Such frights will come and go.
Then there'll be one that won't. One that won't go."

She and her husband explore the countryside in Western Ontario. The beginning theme of learning about families from old graveyards is repeated, as they attempt to discover the history of some unusual crypts.

In the course of this, they meet a man who remembers her father:

"He takes a closer look at me, and laughs.

"'You're not telling me he was your dad, are you?'"

And later:

"'Well now. I can see it in you. Bob Laidlaw's girl. 'Round the eyes. That's a long time ago...'

"...I agree with him, and then we both say that it is a small world ... We explore the connection as far as it will go... we are both happy. He is happy to be reminded of himself as a young man ... with confidence in what lay ahead of him...

"And I am happy to find somebody who can see me still as part of my family, who can remember my father and the place where my parents worked ... first in hope and then in honorable persistence. "

Epilogue

"Messenger."

Here is another search for a burial ground, this time in Joliet, Illinois. The narrator and her husband travel into the USA "in the summer of 2004", looking for "some trace of the life of William Laidlaw, my great-great-grandfather," the immigrant who died early in the story "Illinois."

"Flags everywhere. Signs. God Bless America."

"... And Joliet rimmed with new suburban houses ... all alike. And even these are preferable, I think, to the grander sort ... with vast shelter for cars and windows high enough for a cathedral."

Amidst the suburban mysteries of Illinois, Munro eventually despairs of finding the actual burial place of her great-great-grandfather. She returns to Blyth, in Ontario, west of Toronto, where Mary Scott is buried.

"On her stone is the name of that man, William Laidlaw.

Died in Illinois. And buried God knows where."

We've come so far, and covered nearly two hundred years. But we've gotten more than a history lesson, and more than a picture of pioneer life. Munro reveals herself in these stories with a courage and (I think) honesty that leaves me breathless and astonished. I found myself searching my own dim childhood memories for forgotten people and places, and significances.

It was difficult to write about this collection because I did want to do it justice, and it's a work that is far above my own meagre talents. This was a book in which I was happy to lose myself, and yet also to find myself -- and from an unlikely source, perhaps -- and yet it is hard for me to put down what it is about these stories that captivates me. As I re-read them in trying to write this review, I got lost in them again. I was in Ontario, I could feel its sun and weather, and breathe its air, and look through the eyes of the younger and older woman who tells these tales. I ask no better reward from any work of literature.

James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd
Ettrick Kirk and Thomas Boston
Georgian Bay and Around, Photos by Hanif Bayat

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