Although all of the short stories in this volume have been published previously, this collection is useful for several reasons. Obviously, the chronological arrangement of Selected Stories makes it easy for one to trace the author’s development from the 1960’s, when she first began to be recognized, to the 1990’s, when most critics rank her with the best contemporary writers. Moreover, this collection shows why Alice Munro has been highly admired over such a long period. Every story, even the earliest, bears evidence of her insight, her sensitivity to milieu, and her meticulous craft.
The publication of Selected Stories is of special significance because Munro is one of the few writers whose reputation has been built almost entirely on short fiction. Open Secrets (1994), the book which preceded Selected Stories, was Munro’s seventh collection of short stories. Her only book-length work in another genre is the novel Lives of Girls and Women (1971), which, many argue, is simply a series of interrelated short stories. Indeed, it is difficult to see much difference between Lives of Girls and Women and the short-story collection Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), which was published in the United States as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose (1979). Both books are made up of separate chapters, each of which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a conventional short story, and in both cases, the primary source of unity is the presence of a single protagonist throughout the volume. Even if one chooses to think of Lives of Girls and Women as a novel, however, the fact remains that Alice Munro will be remembered almost entirely for her short fiction.
Naturally, over Munro’s long career, there have been some changes. In her earlier stories, Munro describes life in small towns and rural areas, usually in southwestern Ontario, the area where she spent her childhood and where she eventually made her home. Thus the first story in this collection, “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” published in Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), begins in the old village of “Tuppertown,” on Lake Huron, and follows the narrator and her father into the countryside, where he goes to peddle his wares and, as the narrator discovers, to indulge in a romantic adventure. The fourth selection, “Images,” which appeared in the same collection, is set at the rural home of the narrator’s grandparents. Even when the characters in these early stories venture into a city, they are ill at ease. It is with relief that they make their way back to their own small town, where they need not worry about getting lost or feeling out of place.
Often the narrators of these early stories are children or young girls, and the plot line involves an initiation. In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” for example, the salesman’s daughter is able to see her father as he could have been if he had married someone like the lusty Nora, instead of a wife whose every action emphasizes how badly he has failed her. “Dance of the Happy Shades” is another story about unrealized potential. In this case, however, the focus is not on an adult who made an unfortunate choice, but on a young girl who will never have the opportunity to develop her musical talent because she has been sidelined from society as mentally deficient. The more fortunate young narrator, who, ironically, is not musically gifted, discovers that the world is filled with appalling waste. She also sees that in the music teacher’s love for her less fortunate students, and their love for her, there is a redemptive quality that the rest of the paying students and their petty, judgmental mothers cannot begin to approach or even to comprehend.
Although Lives of Girls and Women began with the protagonist’s childhood, it soon moved into her adult years. This more mature perspective characterizes many of the short stories of the 1970’s. In the title story of Munro’s second collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), all of the major characters, including the narrator, have reached that stage of life when one realizes that there are no more options. The setting, too, changes in many of these later stories. Although “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” takes place in a small, lakeside town, more often than not Munro now places her characters in an urban, rather than a rural, environment. “Material,” for example, describes the narrator’s life in Vancouver and is filled with references to bookstores, libraries, and campus life. It is also typical of all but the earliest of Munro’s fiction in that the subject is the difficulty in achieving a happy male- female relationship, within or outside of marriage, as evidenced by the high incidence of divorce and adultery.
Throughout most of “Material,” the female protagonist relives a past life, when she was married to a writer. This backward look is prompted by her reading one of his stories and recognizing that it...