Alice Munro was born Alice Ann Laidlaw, the eldest of three children of Robert Laidlaw and Anne Chamney, on July 10, 1931. The family lived in a nineteenth century brick farmhouse at the edge of Wingham, Ontario, the small town usually disguised in her fiction as Walley, Jubilee, or Hanratty. Munro’s father, a descendant of Scottish pioneers, raised silver foxes and, later, mink. For the first two grades, Munro attended the rough Lowertown School modeled in “Privilege” (1978), where she was the only child in her class to pass first grade. At her mother’s insistence, she was transferred to the Wingham public schools where, living in imagination and books, she felt even more isolated. She worked on an unfinished gothic novel during high school, influenced by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847).
After World War II the popular demand for furs lessened, and eventually the fox farm failed; times were so hard that the Laidlaws had to burn sawdust for heat. In 1947 Robert Laidlaw took a job as night watchman at the local iron foundry, raising turkeys as a sideline. Anne Laidlaw, an elementary teacher of Irish descent, had been forced to abandon her career because married women were not allowed to teach. In her mid-forties she developed a devastating form of Parkinson’s disease contracted from the encephalitis virus. Munro had to do all the housework from the time she was twelve and as a teenager worked as a maid for a Toronto family. Her feelings toward her mother were intensely ambivalent, and there were frequent clashes.
Winning a two-year scholarship enabled Munro to attend the University of Western Ontario, where in 1949 she entered the journalism program, switching to English in her second year. At her boardinghouse she received a full breakfast but had a meager food allowance of thirty-five cents for the rest of the day. She held two library jobs and sold her blood for extra income. In the spring of 1950, she published her first story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” in Folio, the campus literary magazine. By then she was engaged to James Munro, a fellow student. When her scholarship expired in 1951, she was forced to leave school, returning home to care for her temporarily bedridden mother. She and James were married at her parents’ home in Wingham just after Christmas.
Munro’s eldest daughter, Sheila, has noted that her parents’ marriage paralleled in many respects the mismatched backgrounds of Patrick and Rose in Munro’s story “The Beggar Maid” (1977). While Munro’s circumstances were modest, James’s father was a well-to-do accountant for the Toronto branch of Eaton’s department...
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