Visiting the Ancestors of Alice Munro

Alice Munro visited the graves of her ancestors in this church yard

Alice Munro turned up in my 2013 book 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Under the heading, “Booker Prize winner creates her own country,” I began  by quoting Jonathan Franzen and Cynthia Ozick and the judges who awarded Munro the Man Book International Prize. From there I waxed eloquent for 1,700 words. But the painting above, by Sheena Fraser McGoogan, arose out of an earlier research trip to Scotland — one that included a Munro highlight I described in my 2010 book, How the Scots Invented Canada. This time, I began more personally:

In Scotland not long ago, driving north out of Robbie Burns country, two Canadians made a detour to visit the burial grounds of the paternal ancestors of author Alice Munro. We followed a winding, one-lane road through rolling hills and sheep-filled fields into the Ettrick Valley, where locals directed us to a churchyard containing the graves of William and Margaret Laidlaw.

In The View from Castle Rock, her 2007 collection of autobiographical stories, Munro writes of visiting this churchyard, fifty miles (80 km) south of Edinburgh. William Laidlaw, her great, great, great, great-grandfather, lies buried here along with his sister, Margaret Laidlaw Hogg. She was the mother of James Hogg, who became famous throughout Scotland as “the Ettrick Shepherd.”

Hogg was a friend of Sir Walter Scott, and in Castle Rock Munro relates how, when Scott was collecting ballads for The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Hogg introduced his mother to the young anthologist. Scott included several contributions from the old countrywoman, but afterwards, Munro tells us, Mrs. Hogg complained: “They were made for singin’ and no for prentin’ . . . and noo they’ll never be sung mair.”

Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in southern Ontario in 1931. Her daughter Sheila has speculated that the celebrated author derives her near-photographic memory from her Laidlaw ancestry: “How else can her almost freakish memory, her ability, for instance, to look at her old high-school photos and remember the colours of all the dresses the girls are wearing, be explained?” Munro’s storytelling ability too, she adds, “which so often relates the everyday to the macabre, the nightmare, even the supernatural, the way ballads do, has some affinity with that whole minstrel tradition.”

Munro herself, widely regarded as one of the finest short story writers in the English language, relates how in 1818 her ancestors sailed from Scotland and settled in southern Ontario, where she was born in the town of Wingham. By that time, her father spoke in a Canadian rather than a Scottish accent, and he had settled on a small farm just outside that Scots-Irish town, which Munro describes as Presbyterian to its core.

Through her acclaimed stories, celebrated for their honesty, compassion, and insight, as well as for their technical virtuosity, Munro has fictionalized the surrounding area into an identifiable region. The late Carol Shields, after declaring herself an “enormous fan,” said of Munro: “Her use of language is very sophisticated, but I can always hear, underneath the sentence and its rhythms, that rural Ontario sound.”

Alice Munro is world-acclaimed, of course. In May 2009, in honour of her lifetime of work, she won the Man Booker International Prize, inspiring the three-judge panel to write that she “brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels.” Winning this recognition, over such writers as Peter Carey, E.L. Doctorow, V.S. Naipaul, and Joyce Carol Oates, established Munro’s international pre-eminence.

Worth more than $100,000, the Man Booker capped a list of honours that includes three Governor General’s Awards, two Giller Prizes, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, the Marian Engel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the W.H. Smith Award in Britain and, in the United States, the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award. But Jonathan Franzen, writing in the New York Times Book Review, has perhaps put the case most succinctly: “Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America.”

Such universal recognition notwithstanding, Munro remains firmly, almost defiantly, rooted in southern Ontario. Her work, more than that of any other writer, has given rise to the idea of “Southern Ontario Gothic” literature. In Alice Munro: A Double Life, biographer Catherine Sheldrick Ross quotes Munro describing her native Huron County as having “a rural culture with a strong Scots-Irish background.” The area also has “a big sense of righteousness,” Munro added, “but with big bustings-out and grotesque crime. And ferocious sexual humour and the habit of getting drunk and killing each other off on the roads.” Later, she would note that in Huron County, “the every-day is side by side with the macabre.” It was a rural area, so inevitably it produced “bloody accidents.” And she grew up with “the extreme, the grotesque” as part of her daily life on the outskirts of a town hit hard by the Great Depression.

Munro realized early that she wanted to become a writer. But she hid this ambition as best she could. Her Scots Presbyterian family, she has said, strongly disapproved of “calling attention to yourself.” Wanting to be remarkable in any way constituted a reckless challenge to fate and those “supernatural powers always on the lookout for greed.”

To shine as a student was acceptable, and Alice Laidlaw did so all through high school. She discovered her vocation at fifteen, after reading Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery’s novel about a girl who chooses to become a writer. Later, Munro would declare it “the watershed book of my life.”

At seventeen, she won scholarships to attend University of Western Ontario in London, about seventy miles (110 km) from Wingham. In 1950, while still a student, she published her first story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow.” The following year, with her funding running out, Alice Laidlaw left the university to marry James Munro and move to Vancouver, British Columbia. During the 1950s and ’60s, while based in that province, she gave birth to four daughters, one of whom died hours after being born.

In 1963, with her husband, the writer opened a bookstore in Victoria: Munro’s Books. She was still helping out there five years later when she published a first collection of stories, The Dance of the Happy Shades. Hailed as presenting “a perceptive young narrator’s dawning awareness of the powerful and legendary shapes lying behind ordinary life in Huron County,” the book won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction—a spectacular debut for a first book of stories.

In 1971, Munro published a second book, Lives of Girls and Women, a collection of interlinked stories in which again she drew extensively on her girlhood in southern Ontario. A review in the Los Angeles Times typified the reception, declaring Munro “a writer of enormous gifts and perception.”

After Munro divorced in 1972, she returned to the area that fuelled her fiction. She served for a year as writer-in-residence at  Western, and then, in 1976, married Gerald Fremlin, a geographer from the same region. Eventually, they settled in the small town of Clinton, about twenty miles (30 km) from Wingham.

From that home base, by intensifying her vivid regional focus, Munro has forged a spectacular international career. Like Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner and a few other great writers, she created a distinctive fictional world that has taken her name: “Alice Munro country.”

In 1978, Munro won her second Governor General’s Award with her collection Who Do You Think You Are?, which was also runner-up for the B

ooker Prize. While publishing regularly in magazines like the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review, she just kept winning prizes. After her 1986 collection, The Progress of Love, won her a third Governor General’s Award, the American critic and short story writer Cynthia Ozick summed up the international consensus by describing Munro as “our Chekhov.”

Around that time, during a wide-ranging interview in Calgary, Munro spoke of her return to Ontario from the west coast. “I didn’t go back for any literary purpose,” she said. “I thought I was through with small-town Ontario, and that I’d be writing about my years in Vancouver and Victoria—that background.”

Apparently, the Presbyterian Fates could take the writer out of Huron County—and Munro has since travelled extensively—but not for long. Certainly, the author has consistently refused to situate herself in any context but a local or regional one, rejecting any suggestion that she might represent a pan-Canadian culture. In a 1994 interview with the CBC’s Peter Gzowski, for example, Munro said she had proven forthcoming because he had not asked her “about CanLit.”

Yet she has always remained open to seeing her work characterized as regional. “If I’m a regional writer,” Munro said in one interview, “the region I’m writing about has many things in common with the American South. . . . [I am writing out of] a closed rural society with a pretty homogenous Scotch-Irish racial strain going slowly to decay.”

In Alice Munro, we hear a universal voice speaking in a distinctive accent. We hear the sound of Southern Ontario.


Leave a Comment