NY: Knopf, 1996.
To my mind, there are three great Canadian literary figures of my generation (more or less) — or, better, three giants of literature who happen to be Canadian. And that’s Richardson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, all of whom brought Canadian literature onto the world stage. Munro is widely regarded, with complete justification, as possibly the best living creator of short stories in English. She’s been doing this stuff since the 1950s and is still going strong. She’s won all sorts of awards and she may yet snag a Nobel one of these days.
A “complete works of” volume would be several times the size of this one, but the twenty-eight stories in these 500-plus pages are the very cream of a superior crop. Her stories tend to be about the ways people link to one another, spouses both past and present, parents with their children both young and grown, all sorts of people with those in their pasts and their futures. And the settings are most often the gray communities of southern and western Ontario, old ports, mill towns filled with working families and boarded-up factories, and the hardscrabble farms a few miles away. These people in their old clothes, the children in their reworked hand-me-downs, often are poor though without acknowledging it, perhaps without even realizing it.
Just as a sample: One of my own favorites in this volume is “The Beggar Maid,” about how people can be talked into bad decisions, by others or by themselves, including marriage. It’s almost a very small but perfect novel, and, of course, Rose and Flo figure in some other stories. Another favorite, probably because I’m a working genealogist, is “A Wilderness Station,” quite a fascinating little multigenerational epistolary family epic. The subject of “Lichen” is serial relationships, none of which is ever quite good enough. “The Progress of Love” is another of Munro’s classic explorations of the potential violence in love, carried out this time in masterful dialogue. “Postcard” is about the danger of making assumptions about what other people think and feel. “Dance of the Happy Shades” and “Images” each views a small corner of the adult world as seen by a child; like many of Munro’s pieces, these two aren’t so much “stories” (with a beginning, middle, and end) as vignettes, portraits of people in a certain time and place and what they experience and how they feel about it. The most recent piece in the volume (though Munro has, of course, written many more since) is “Vandals,” which is also one of the longest. It’s one of those stories that is almost impossible to describe. One can say it’s about taxidermy and nature, or about unexpected death and the aftermath and what comes after that. It’s about strange and completely unacceptable behavior. It’s about people. It’s a terrific story and it’s also one of my favorites. This is a book to settle in with for a month or two, reading one story at a time and then thinking about it before going on to the next.