Monday 29 November 2010

The View from Castle Rock

 This was the Reading Group’s book for November.   It is in fact a two part  collection of (not so) short stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro.  The stories are all linked in one way or another by their origin in the family history of the author.  Alice Munro can trace one side of her family - the Laidlaws - all the way back to late 17th century Scotland.  In particular to the Ettrick Valley in the Borders.    There, her ancestors included some famous, well known people such as Will O’Phaup and James Hogg.  So it is perhaps appropriate that Alice Munro returns to that part of the world for inspiration for this collection.  
In the first part of the book the stories trace the lives of various members of the Laidlaw family as they slowly move from farming in the Ettrick Valley in the 18th century to a different kind of farming in Ontario in the years of the 20th century great Depression.  Some of these stories read more like history as Munro has made significant use of primary sources, both official public records and personal writings.  Some of these writings are quoted in the stories.  While this gives a degree of authenticity to the stories, it made some of them a bit too formal for me.   I preferred the more fictional parts.  In particular the account of the sea journey across the Atlantic, which has the title The View from Castle Rock.  Not sure why this was chosen, nor why it is given to the whole collection as the family is only in Edinburgh for a very short time.  The description of the journey from Illinois to Ontario is also finely told as is the attempts of her father and mother to earn a living as fur farmers in the years before the Depression.
The second part is all about Alice herself.  Most of these stories tell about her life as a young girl and as a teenager growing up in rural Ontario.  They are all very convincing and impressive tales.  Munro manages to convey a real sense of what life was like at that particular time.  It is also a very personal account.  She recalls the past and in so doing she let us see at least a little of her own inner turmoil as tries to understand her own past.  For example, why did she feel the way she did about her mum?   As much as these stories are about the past, they are also as much about the present, at least the present day Alice Munro.
Now of course though Alice Munro wrote these stories and wrote them in the first person, they are just stories.  So it is not necessarily the actual Alice Munro who is making these inner reflections.  What all the stories do convey in a most vivid way is the hardships and sufferings of the families.  Life is never easy and enjoyment and pleasure rare visitors.  Rural Ontario in the early first half of the 20th century clearly had much in common with the Borders in the 18th century.   

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