The View from Castle Rock
In a foreword in which she explains how the stories in The View from Castle Rock originate in the lives of her ancestors and in her own experience, Alice Munro breaks her long silence about her fiction and her life. Now in her seventies, she notes that in old age, many people cannot resist rummaging through the past. When she was in her mid-sixties, she says, she began to take more than a casual interest in the Laidlaw side of her family, which she traced back to the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, an area that the 1799 Statistical Account of Scotland labeled as having “no advantage.” During this period of ancestral interest, Munro traveled in Scotland for a few months, researching the family in cemeteries and public libraries, discovering that in every generation of her family, someone was a writerof letters, journals, or recollections.
Munro says that as she put together this material over the years, the material began to shape itself into “something like stories.” This is not surprising, given that she is, with little or no argument, the best short-story writer currently practicing that underrated art. The combination of the words of her ancestors and her own, she says, resulted in a re-creation of lives about as truthful as the past can be.
In addition, Munro says, during this same period she was writing a special set of stories that she had not included in her last four books of fiction because she felt they did not belong. Although they were not memoirs, they were closer to her own life than other stories she had written. She says that in her previous stories she drew on personal material but then did whatever she wanted to with it; for the chief thing she was doing was “making a story.” However, in these new pieces, she knew she was doing something closer to what a memoir doesexploring her own life although not in a rigorously factual way.
The View from Castle Rock is made up of these two separate setsfive family chronicles that Munro says are “something like stories” and six pieces drawn from her own life that she emphatically declares are “stories.” Munro describes them as two separate streams that flow into one channel.
The first story, “No Advantages,” is the most historical, least fictionalized of the five pieces of “family history.” The narrator is Munro, in her sixties, traveling alone in Scotland. When she finds the gravestone of her fifth great-grandfather, born at the end of the seventeenth century, she enjoys that familiar human experience of imagining her ancestors existing in time and space. Discovering he is the last man in Scotland to have seen the fairies, she envisions him as a sort of Rip Van Winkle who encounters little people, about as high as two-year-old children, calling his name. She draws conclusions and forms hypotheses about him and those who follow him. She identifies a trait in her Scottish ancestors that matches her own attitudes generations laterthe reluctance to call attention to oneself, which is not modesty, but rather a refusal to turn one’s life into a story, either for other people or for oneselfa curious trait for a storyteller who has all of her adult life transformed her life into story.
The title story of the collection moves closer to fictionalized narrative. Its imaginative spark derives from a received story of one of her ancestors, a young boy, being taken up to Edinburgh Castle by his father, who points out a grayish-blue piece of land showing through the mist beyond the waves and pronounces gravely “America.” The boy knows he is not looking at America but rather an island off the coast of Scotland, but this does not lessen the force of the illusion of a land that does have “advantages,” so far away, yet so closea combination of fiction and reality. The story focuses on the actual journey the family makes to Nova Scotia. Although Munro says she depends largely on a journal kept by one of the family members, whereas he merely records events, Munro speculates and humanizes, inventing actions for which she has no historical basis and creating motivations based on her imaginative identification with her ancestors.
“Illinois” deals with an event that must have been irresistible to Munro, who has written previous stories of tricks and cross-purposes. A young male ancestor steals his baby sister and hides her; two silly young girls who like to play jokes steal the infant a second time to tease another boy. It is a comedy of errors that ends well...
(The entire section is 1846 words.)