Alice Munro © Derek Shapton
In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography?
Like many girls raised in small towns in the first half of the last century, Alice Munro was brought up to be quiet and compliant. She has said she believed that “the worst thing you could do was "call attention to yourself," or "think you were smart." Thrift and domestic skills were valued, independent thought and personal ambition were not. Yet Munro has, over her career, called quite a bit of attention to herself for her insightful, expertly crafted stories, many of which feature smart girls who wind up getting the wrong kind of attention when they go against the norms of their stifling towns and claustrophobic families.
Munro acknowledges that some of the stories in her most recent collection, Dear Life, are autobiographical ("in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact," she writes), as were many of the pieces in her 2006 collection, The View from Castle Rock, which traced the writer’s ancestors from Scotland to Canada. But you can’t help suspect there is a fundamental element of fact in all of her fiction -- that over her sixty-odd-year career, she has continued to marvel and puzzle over her own trajectory from rural Canadian farm girl to internationally acclaimed writer (a modern Chekhov, according to more than one critic), turning it around and around, reimagining it from every possible angle and perspective, looking for the moment, the glance, the shift in the light that enabled her to escape her fate and make her own life.
The facts of Munro’s life are easy enough to come by -- she has spoken and written of her childhood as the daughter of a farmer who, for a time, raised minks, and a mother who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. A two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario got her off the farm, and by the age of twenty-five she was married with a daughter and had started writing stories, though she has said her early fiction was "often no good." In the 1960s, Munro and her first husband ran a bookstore in Victoria, Canada, where the writer worked part-time, while raising her three daughters and writing short stories. After divorcing her husband in 1972, she moved back to Ontario, remarried, and has been writing ever since at the rate of a story collection every four years or so (though she says Dear Life is her last collection, a claim she previously made about The View from Castle Rock.)
The deceptive simplicity of Munro’s stories, which often describe small events that have deep consequences, recalled through layers of flashbacks, has made her a favorite of literary theorists, and there have been a few scholarly biographies (as well as a memoir by her daughter, Sheila Munro.) But what’s missing is a biography that takes a fine-grained approach to Munro’s own daily life, searching for that epiphanic moment so many of her characters experience, separating who they were from who they become. Imagine a biography by someone who could investigate the writer with the same combination of tenderness and merciless insistence on the truth that Munro applies to her characters. Someone who could go back to the beginning, to the girl living on the failing farm, with the sick mother, the despairing father, and the secret, dangerous desire to write it all down.
At what moment did that girl, Alice Ann Laidlaw, come to know that she would defy the assumptions that she become a good wife, a good mother, a good housekeeper, and nothing more? What happened to make her believe that being a writer wasn’t "unseemly and possibly neglectful," as she’s said she was raised to believe, or that even if it was, it was what she was meant to do, and what gave her the courage to break free of her family’s and community’s expectations and succeed in a way many of her characters are not able? The peeks we get at Munro’s formative years in her fiction are as insightful, and sometimes devastating, as any of her stories, but they are not enough. The title of her fourth collection, Who Do You Think You Are? suggests the tension so many of her characters feel between who they know they’re supposed to be, and who they want to become. Now that Alice Munro has gracefully bowed out of writing, what we need is a book exploring who Munro was, and how she became the writer she is.