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The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro
The eccentric emigrants
Friday 03 November 2006
This new collection of stories by the incomparable Alice Munro consists of two sections and an epilogue. The first part, five stories gathered under the heading "No Advantages", has to do with family history. A foreword specifies the impulse to re-create certain ancestral lives, "in a given setting that [is] as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be".
The ancestors in question came from Scotland. Alice Munro has already located a couple of stories in Scotland. "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass", for example, in the 1990 collection Friend of My Youth, opens with a Canadian woman in a chilly hotel room making notes about William Wallace, Walter Scott, old graveyards and grey stone buildings. Now, the notes made by Alice Munro in connection with her investigations of family history have blossomed into a sequence of pungent episodes concerning the Laidlaws of the Ettrick valley (Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw): a backward place full of bad roads and ancient superstitions. The Laidlaws take shape as farmers, shepherds, heroes of local lore; and then as emigrants, survivors of hard crossings and strange environments.
Mention of the Ettrick valley immediately focuses attention on the author of the Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and sure enough James Hogg turns up among Alice Munro's ancesttors. His grandfather was her five-times-great-grandfather. Hogg's writings about his Laidlaw relations find their way into this book - though only as spurs to set the author's imagination going.
She has imagined, for example, the voyage from Leith to the New World undertaken in 1818 by old James Laidlaw and members of his family: a voyage rife with the usual shipboard privations, enlightening encounters and roads not taken - and the inevitable drift towards the gravestones in a cemetery in Esquesing, Halton County, Canada.
The Laidlaws put down roots in Ontario, with scope to exercise their farming skills and Presbyterian severity. They tended to lead somewhat bleak and, in some cases, eccentric lives. The first part's last story, "Working for a Living", brings us into the 20th century with Alice Munro's father Robert Laidlaw, who turned his back on the education to which his abilities entitled him, and opted instead for a life of trapping, caretaking at a local foundry, and eventual turkey-farming.
It is hard, nowadays, to envisage anything more miserable, barbarous and soul-destroying than fur-trapping, or fox-farming; but at the time, the terrible occupation retained connotations of RM Ballantyne's novel The Young Fur-Traders, the romance of the great outdoors and the pioneering spirit - a spirit woefully subdued in some descendants of the Laidlaw clan. "To think what their ancestors did," Robert Laidlaw muses. "The nerve it took, to pick up and cross the ocean. What was it squashed their spirits? So soon."
Fortunately, they weren't all quashed. This book's second part contains six more-or-less autobiographical pieces, stretching from the author's doughty childhood to her present, seasoned incarnation in her seventies. These are all vigorous, engaging and resonant stories, and deeply attuned - as ever - to the life of rural Ontario. Alice Munro is famous for her wayward mode of perception, which comes out both in the way the stories are constructed, and in her faintly sardonic, and compelling, appraisals of the customs of the day.
You get a lot of upright stoical women in these pages, some wearing homemade dresses patterned with tiny flowers, along with men whose awfulness or oddity can reach heroic proportions ("If somebody told me that he was drowning in the river I would go and stand on the bank and cheer," one daughter says of her bullying father). All of them fit in to the fullest degree with the roles assigned to them. There are several outstanding stories in this vibrant collection - "Lying Under the Apple Tree", for example, which gets an ambiguity into its title (it turns on an instance of sexual duplicity); and the title story, "The View from Castle Rock".
One day, sometime around the turn of the 19th century, a Laidlaw patriarch leads his young son Andrew, along with a bunch of drinking companions fresh from the pub, up to the top of Castle Rock in Edinburgh. From this vantage point, a strip of coastline is visible in the distance: it is actually Fife, but he tells them they are looking at a portion of America.
It's unclear whether he actually believss this piece of moonshine, or is having them on. But what he is doing is akin to what the fiction writer does herself: magnifying reality, wilfully tampering with the facts to create a vivid impression.
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