Alice Munro…oh my word (and hers)

For a very long time now, I’ve been especially moved by the Southern Gothic literary genre.

I wouldn’t say I actively seek it out, but when I think back over the things I’ve read, the things that have really stuck with me over time, it’s the scenes and characters from this style that come immediately to mind.  Willa Cather’s tragic character Paul and his “picture-making mechanism,” Eudora Welty’s Optimist’s Daughter, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  These are the books and stories that make me actively gasp and clutch the reading a bit tighter, or hang my head over the page and cry.  These are the books and stories that inspire me to be a better writer.  They way they say very little……while at the same time saying absolutely everything…

…is just the very picture of exquisite.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered through a roundabout day of lazy internet searching that Canada has a Southern Gothic, too.

I guess to fully imagine this delight, I have to put things a bit further into context–not only am I madly in love with this genre, I’m also madly in love with Canada, and specifically with south-western Ontario where the Canadian Southern Gothic genre thrives.

My love affair with Canada definitely started back in 2010.  My brother Andrew, in his incredible generosity, decided that we needed to celebrate my acceptance into a PhD program with a travel adventure up the Pacific Northwest portion of the 101 coastline.  This was an excellent decision on his part–I still think this is about the coolest trip I’ve ever been on.  It was my first real contact with countryside that wasn’t prairie and farmland.  It was my first real vacation, with no tour buses or choral concerts or days spent in the archive.  And it was an amazing bonding experience with my best friend, as we listened to all sorts of music and investigated as many new ecosystems as possible and laughed ourselves silly on the way into Forks, WA.

One of Andrew's shots.In the end, we drove from Seaside, OR into Port Angeles, WA, and then we hopped a car ferry and wove our way through a sea of tiny islands on our way to Victoria, British Columbia.  We stayed in the Empress Hotel right on the Inner Harbour, he took me to my very first high tea (in a total obliging big brother move that ended up working out for us both), we discovered that roses grow wild there like dandelions in the Midwest, and I determined that this was a place where I could absolutely live and work.  Although I would have to work on being less cantankerous–Canadians are nice people.

I’ve basically been jonesing for Canada ever since we went, and I don’t mean simply Victoria, B.C.  Kate Beaton’s hilarious comics make me want to visit Nova Scotia.  A collection of sea chanties we sang in choir make me want to visit Newfoundland.  A world history class for which I was the TA put me on a track to discovering creole history in Quebec.  And then, of course, my anthropomorphic daydreams, Marc and Elliot, took up residence in Toronto and started spending time with some friends in the countryside of Ontario.

Apparently the pull of this last attachment was too much to ignore, because this last year, first in February and later in May, I traveled to Toronto twice.

I flew in the first time, and stayed in an adorable B&B in Chinatown.  Despite the loads of snow, I fell in love with the University of Toronto, the city itself, and the art gallery, making friends all over the place (and I am not good at making friends–I’m telling you, people in Canada are the nicest.)

The second time, I drove in with a colleague from UIC, and as soon as we crossed the border into the countryside we were both basically irate that this was not our place of residence from henceforth unto the aeternal.  I mean, it was stunning.  Horses galloped against the sunset, picturesque red barns dotted the horizon, clumps of forest shielded the roadsides, and everything smelled so much cleaner because of the comparative lack of industry.  Maybe our rose colored glasses had something to do with the fact that earlier in the trip we drove through the infamous Gary, IN and got stuck in a traffic jam right outside of Detroit, but I will uphold to my dying breath that driving through the countryside of Ontario was like driving through a Bob Ross painting.

Not my picture, but this looks *exactly* like what we drove through.

My colleague, Marie, insists that if we had accidentally hit a deer, it would have apologized for being in our way.

So, Canada.  Madly, wildly in love with it.

Then…I found out about Alice Munro, my new favorite author and Canadian Southern Gothic writer extraordinaire.

Some of you have likely already encountered this amazing woman.  It’s not as though she’s been hiding under a rock.  She’s a Nobel Prize winner, the recipient of numerous Canadian writing awards, and she’s been publishing since the mid 60s.  She’s a quiet powerhouse.

And, as with the American Southern Gothic, the real strength of her writing lies in her ability to make things tangible.  She writes primarily of women–all sorts of women going through all sorts of trials and finding, or not finding, all manner of loves.  She writes only in the short story form.  And in each story there is this delicious moment, or maybe two, where she takes a sentence, makes it say the unexpected, and leaves you completely. devastated.

“And you’ll never see it coming because I look like this, and I live in Canada where everyone is *so nice.*”

On the advice of the A. V. Club, associated with The Onion, I started with her story “Runaway.”  It was the perfect introduction to her writing–real, beautiful, and tragic.  The only advice I would add would be this: read the story when you have a day ahead of you in which you can just concentrate on feeling things.

And I’m not talking in “lolz, all the feeeeels.  so many feeeels!!!!11” empty, bullshit terms.

I’m talking, make yourself a cup of tea, sit down with this story, read it slowly without taking a single word for granted, and then spend your day maybe cleaning, or going for a walk, or doing something mundane, and imagining yourself repeating those actions in the exact world that she describes, in the shoes of her characters.

It’ll bring you to your knees.

Here’s a link to a site that has eighteen of her stories available for free, including “Runaway.”

And then, if you’re interested in her writing process, which I most definitely was, check out this page for an interview with her.  I suggest reading this after you’ve encountered some of her writing, because you will then be able to see her creating characters even as she speaks.

And finally, if you can stop yourself, don’t read more than one of her stories a day.  I tried it, and they were both so lush that I found them competing for space in my brain, which nearly ruined the poignancy of each.

Take your time.  She’s so worth it.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

2 thoughts on “Alice Munro…oh my word (and hers)

  1. So can you believe that I have never been to Canada. We live in Oregon now….how hard can it be? I am reminded of a quote on your Grandma Byram’s refrigerator, ” I don’t know how it happened, it wasn’t by design, but my children’s standard of living is considerably higher than mine”:)
    But Alice Munro writes in a way that holds my emotions hostage. Her stories completely absorb me and I want to do as you say…something that allows me to ponder her characters.( No operating heavy machinery or driving kind of warning ?)

    • Well, first of all, you and Dad need to take a trip up to Canada. No excuses! I know you’ll both love the scenery.

      And secondly, you’ve put it better than I:

      1) Definitely, the stories should come with a warning about heavy machinery.

      2) Munro *does* hold your emotions hostage. That’s exactly it. And then when she hands them back to you, they’re not quite the same as when you forfeited them. They’re stretched out with new understandings.

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying her writing, too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s