Synopses & Reviews
Alice Munro mines her rich family background, melding it with her own experiences and the transforming power of her brilliant imagination, to create perhaps her most powerful and personal collection yet.
A young boy, taken to Edinburgh's Castle Rock to look across the sea to America, catches a glimpse of his father's dream. Scottish immigrants experience love and loss on a journey that leads them to rural Ontario. Wives, mothers, fathers, and children move through uncertainty, ambivalence, and contemplation in these stories of hopes, adversity, and wonder. The View from Castle Rock reveals what is most essential in Munro's art: her compassionate understanding of ordinary lives.
"[Signature] Reviewed by Sigrid Nunez
Ten collections of stories and one novel have made Alice Munro one of the most praised fiction writers of our time. In The View from Castle Rock
her full range of gifts is on display: indelible characters, deep insights about human behavior and relationships, vibrant prose, and seductive, suspenseful storytelling. Munro, in a foreword, tells how, a decade ago, she began looking into her family history, going all the way back to 18th-century Scotland. This material eventually became the stories presented here in part 1, 'No Advantages.' Munro also worked on 'a special set of stories,' none of which she included in previous collections, because they were 'rather more personal than the other stories I had written.' They now appear here in part 2, 'Home.' With both parts, Munro says, she has had a free hand with invention. Munro has used personal material in her fiction before, but at 75, she has given us something much closer to autobiography. Much of the book concerns people who have died, and places and ways of life that no longer exist or have been completely transformed, and though Munro is temperamentally unsentimental the mood is often elegiac. One difficulty that can arise with this kind of hybrid work is that the reader is likely to be distracted by the itch to know whether an event really occurred, or how much has been made up or embellished. In the title story, the reader is explicitly told that almost everything has been invented, and this enthralling multilayered narrative about an early 19th-century Scottish family's voyage to the New World is the high point of the collection. On the other hand, 'What Do You Want to Know For?' at the heart of which is an account of a cancer scare Munro experienced, reads like pure memoir and seems not only thin by comparison but insufficiently imagined as a short story. Perhaps none of the stories here is quite up to the mastery of earlier Munro stories such as 'The Beggar Maid' or 'The Albanian Virgin.' But getting this close to the core of the girl who would become the master is a privilege and a pleasure not to be missed. And reliably as ever when the subject is human experience, Munro's stories whatever the proportions of fiction and fact always bring us the truth. (Nov.) Sigrid Nunez's most recent novel, The Last of Her Kind, will be published in paperback by Picador in December.
" Publishers Weekly
(Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Writing style yes, predictably limpid and lovely....But [many of the stories] taste like autobiographical essays....On the other hand, only purists will howl over the issue of authorial intrusion, and the vast number of fiction readers will be completely absorbed." Booklist
"A blending and blurring of documented fact with the Munro gifts for dramatizing incident and fleshing character....This is the mortal Munro staking her place in that sturdy bloodline as the one of her generation who writes it down." Katherine Dunn, Portland Oregonian
"Castle Rock is an extremely good book, filled with subtle prose and insights into human nature. It is not Munro's best collection....But for the Munro fanatic, anything from our northern Chekhov is good news." USA Today
"The genre doyenne's perfectly modulated tales have always scored a direct wallop to the cerebral cortex....She doesn't broach any new themes, but Munro's prodigious talent is all here. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"Few of the stories in The View From Castle Rock work as fully realized fictions, and the whole fails to cohere despite the presence of an unnamed narrator meant to link them." Floyd Skloot, The San Francisco Chronicle
"These are Alice Munro's most personal stories. We should be grateful, for they give us a privileged portrait of a brilliant artist." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"The View From Castle Rock...feels deeply misjudged: Munro has scrupulously focused a microscope on her own life and history to the point where she doesn't entirely allow her stories to come alive." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"With this new collection, Munro more than lives up to her reputation as a master of short fiction....All the narratives exhibit Munro's keen eye for realistic details and her ability to illuminate the depths of seemingly mundane lives and relationships. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"The View from Castle Rock is a sad and beautifully written book." BookPage
"This amalgam of history, fiction, and memoir is unlike any historical fiction or autobiographical fiction that I have ever encountered....The View From Castle Rock
is not only every bit as beautiful and substantial a work as Munro's readers might hope for; it is also a work of dizzying originality. In fact, it creates an entirely new category of book into which only it can fall." Deborah Eisenberg, The Atlantic Monthly
(read the entire Atlantic Monthly review
From the award-winning and bestselling author of Runaway comes a new book of short stories that is "as transporting as anything shes ever written" (New York Times).
About the Author
Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published eleven new collections of stories ; Dance of the Happy Shades
; Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You
; The Beggar Maid
; The Moons of Jupiter
; The Progress of Love
; Friend of My Youth
; Open Secrets
; The Love of a Good Woman
; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
; and a volume of Selected Stories
as well as a novel, Lives of Girls and Women
During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including three of Canada's Governor General's Literary Awards and two of its Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England's W. H. Smith Book Award, the United States' National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Edward MacDowell Medal in literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.
Table of Contents
Part One / No Advantages
The View from Castle Rock
The Wilds of Morris Township
Working for a Living
Part Two / Home
Lying Under the Apple Tree
What Do You Want to Know For?
Reading Group Guide
1. “No Advantages”
Visiting the graveyard of Ettrick Church, Munro finds the tombstone of her great-great-great-great grandfather, and is struck with a feeling that “Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined” [p. 7]. What is disturbing about this merging of past and present?
2. “The View from Castle Rock”
Agnes is a willful, sexually alert woman, trapped in her fate as a woman and mother [p. 72]. She is married to Andrew Laidlaw although she had been involved with his brother James [p. 67], who has already gone out to Nova Scotia. Andrew, we are told, “was the one that she needed in her circumstances” [p. 55]. What might her circumstances have been? In what ways does Agnes seem to embody the desires and frustrations of women in her time, and possibly in our time?
3. Why does the old James mention “the curse of Eve” with regard to Agnes [pp. 44-45]? Discuss Munros prose in the paragraphs describing Agnes childbirth [pp. 46-47]. What is most effective, moving, or realistic about this scene?
4. Though Walter refuses Netties fathers offer of work and in doing so refuses to commit himself to Nettie, in later life “he will find that she is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies.” He imagines her “acquiring a tall and maidenly body, their life together. Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret” [p. 78]. Why does Walter pass up this offer?
5. James Laidlaw has wanted all his life to go to America with his family [p. 62]; why, once he is on the ship, does he lose interest? Why does he become, on the ship, so profoundly and comically a man of Ettrick? What do his letters home [pp. 82-84] tell us about him?
6. Munro writes, “I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walters journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention” [p. 84]. Discuss the ways in which factual evidence [pp. 84-87] and imaginative embellishment work together in this story, as well as the effect of this mingling.
Andrew muses on what it was in America that had suited his brother Will and also possibly contributed to his early death: “there was something about all this rushing away, losing oneself entirely from family and past, there was something rash and self-trusting about it that might not help a man, that might put him more in the way of such an accident, such a fate” [p. 110]. Does the collection draw distinctions between those who remain attached to family, even in a new land, and those who are more eager to cut their ties?
8. “The Wilds of Morris Township”
The Laidlaws who settled in Blyth, Ontario—including Munros great-grandfather Thomas—lived seemingly joyless lives: “without any pressure from the community, or their religion …they had constructed a life for themselves that was monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence” [p. 118]. Munros father marveled at the change, in a generation, from adventurous emigrants to cautious settlers: “To think what their ancestors did …To pick up and cross the ocean. What was it squashed their spirits? So soon” [p. 126]. What might be possible answers to this question?
9. “Working for a Living”
Foundering late one night in a snowdrift as he walked home from work, a father thought only about his failures: about the fact that he would die in debt, about his invalid wife and the children he would leave behind. On hearing this, his daughter wondered, “didnt he struggle for his own self? I meant, was his life now something only other people had a use for?” [p. 166]. What does this incident tell us the realities of adulthood, and about the daughters ambition and her sense of self-importance?
10. In what details does this story show how lifes economic difficulties diminish people? Does the father seem somehow heroic in the face of his disappointments? What becomes of the mothers early entrepreneurial talents? How do these people come to terms with their disappointments and continue to face the future?
Bunt Newcombe is so brutal with his wife and children that his daughter Dahlia speaks constantly of her desire to kill him. The narrator says that now such a family “might be looked on with concern and compassion. These people need help.” But in that time and place, such misfortunes were taken at face value: “It was simple destiny and there was nothing to be done about it” [p. 175]. The narrator, however, is also sometimes beaten by her father: “I felt as if it must be my very self that they were after, and in a way I think it was. The self-important disputatious part of my self that had to be beaten out of me” [p. 195]. What does this story tell us about the expectations of the world in which Munro grew up, and about how she managed to survive it with what she would need to become a writer?
12. “Lying Under the Apple Tree”
Since the story is told long after the events narrated, an older woman is narrating the experience of her younger self. What effect does this have on the readers understanding of the girls sexuality? Would the girl have had the words to express what she was feeling at the time? Does the girls desire come through more clearly in the words of an older woman? Think about Munros perspectives, throughout the collection, on sexuality and desire as experienced by women.
13. What are the signs that the Craik family is slightly lower down on the social scale—or at least on the scale of social striving—than the narrators own family? What does she mean in saying, “I was deceiving this family and my own, I was at this table under false pretenses” [p. 218]? How surprising is the storys ending, in which the narrator discovers that Russell is Miriam McAlpins lover?
14. “Hired Girl”
As with “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” this story explores the experience of learning about ones place in the hierarchy of social class. The hired girl, noticing the difference between the Montjoys kitchen and her own familys, thinks, “it seemed as if I had to protect it from contempt—as if I had to protect a whole precious and intimate though hardly pleasant way of life from contempt” [p. 240]. Given this feeling, how does the girl handle herself in the presence of the family she works for? What is she ashamed of?
15. “The Ticket”
This is a story about leaving home, and about how marriage often was, for women, the ticket out. Yet Aunt Charlie suggests, intuiting the girls true feelings, that the man she has chosen might not be “just the right ticket for you” [p. 283]. Discuss how this urgent communication between the older woman and the bride-to-be is handled in the narrative. What details make the end of the story so effective?
The narrator goes back to visit the house where she grew up, which has been modernized by her father and stepmother: “So it seems that this peculiar house—the kitchen part of it built in the eighteen-sixties—can be dissolved, in a way, and lost, inside an ordinary comfortable house of the present time” [p. 289]. How does the story serve to lay bare again the life within the house, which the narrator calls “a poor mans house, a house where people have lived close to the bone for over a hundred years” [pp. 289-90]?
17. When her father says, “I know how you loved this place,” the daughter thinks , “And I dont tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here—some self that I have finished with, and none too soon” [p. 290]. How has the daughters self-love helped her to escape from the life she might have had, had she stayed close to home?
18. “What Do You Want to Know For?”
What is the connection between the major elements in this story—the mysterious crypt, the regional landscape and its history, and the lump in the narrators breast? What is the significance of the lamp sealed inside the vault, and Mrs. Mannerows comment upon it: “Nobody knows why they did it. They just did” [p. 339]?
Munro writes in her epilogue, “We cant resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life” [p. 347]. What is the overall effect of these stories, and how do they make you think about your own familys history and your place in it?
20. On The View from Castle Rock
Discuss Munros decision to create a collection of stories from her own and her familys history. She writes in her foreword, “These are stories. You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. The part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative”. How and why is this approach interesting? Do these stories, in any substantive way, differ from those in Munros earlier collections?
“Masterful ....Munro really does know magic: how to summon the spirits and the emotions that animate our lives.” —The Washington Post Book World
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s conversation about Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, a collection of stories in which she transforms her family’s history—and her own—into gloriously imagined fiction.