Alice Munro has made a career of breaking the rules of short story writing, so perhaps it’s not surprising that two of her collections, The Beggar Maid and Lives of Girls and Women, are included in a list of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
For the most part, the other 999 books recommended here are novels. And Munro, the first Canadian author and the 13th woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is not a novelist. She doesn’t need to be. She does something that in my mind is more difficult and requires a talent for precise observation, emotional honesty, and a solid command of the language: she writes short stories.
We tend to think of the novel as the pinnacle of fiction writing – the ultimate goal after honing your craft with a handful of short stories. I disagree. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, “I didn’t have time to write a short story, so I wrote a long one instead.”
A well-crafted short story is a thing of beauty. I’ve never managed it, although God knows I’ve tried. There’s a manila file folder somewhere that contains a stack of carbon copies (yes, they go back that far) of attempts to emulate the writers I devoured in my youth: Katherine Mansfield, Carson McCullers, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Ernest Hemingway, James Thurber, J. D. Salinger … to name a few. There’s an early short story by Mansfield, “Miss Brill”, that’s one of the most poignant depictions of the dignity and loneliness of old age that I have ever read. These writers are giants. Along with Munro they humble me. And remind me that before I die I will find that file folder and shred it.
Like The Beggar Maid (known better to Canadian readers as Who Do You Think You Are?), Lives of Girls and Women is a collection of interlinked stories about coming of age in semi-rural southwestern Ontario. In this case, the central character is Del Jordan, growing up on the outskirts of Jubilee, living with her father who raises foxes and her intelligent, outspoken mother. Munro’s father did raise foxes, her mother was a teacher, and Jubilee is the fictional stand-in for her home town of Wingham, in Huron County.
But Munro is not writing autobiography. Jubilee is not Wingham – or rather, it is partly Wingham, and partly a composite of several small Ontario towns. Just as Del Jordan is not Alice Munro, but bits and pieces of her younger self, observed and reflected by the older woman. Because this is art – seeing and uplifting the ordinary and transforming it into something that is at once marvelous and real.
And the stories here feel almost shockingly real. A school teacher, “past her prime” as they would say, drowns herself in the Wawanash River. A local radio announcer makes inappropriate sexual advances which Del does nothing to discourage. The Flats Road, where she lives, is home to two “idiots” – Frankie Hall, who is “fat and pale [and] sat out in the sun, beside the dirty store window cats slept in”, and Irene Pollox, who “would chase children on the road and hang over her gate crowing and flapping like a drunken rooster”.
Within her own family there are secrets: her mother, Del learns, was sexually abused by her brother. And her cousin Mary Agnes, born late in her parents’ life and deprived of oxygen at birth, was once taken for a walk by a group of local boys and found naked in the fairgrounds, lying in the mud. It is never spelled out what the boys did to Mary Agnes, aside from removing her clothes, but the reader can guess. For Del, when told the story, the degradation lay in being naked like that, out in the open:
“I thought of Mary Agnes’ body being exposed on the fairgrounds, her prickly cold buttocks sticking out – that did seem to me the most shameful, helpless-looking part of anybody’s body – and I thought that if it had happened to me, to be seen like that, I could not live on afterwards.”
Munro has called her home town “the most interesting place in the world”. People’s lives, she writes, were “dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”.
If Wingham is indeed the most interesting place in the world, it’s because the author has made it so. And for that, I am deeply grateful.