This is a dazzling selection of stories–seventeen favorites chosen by the author from across her distinguished career. I have to admit to ignorance – I had not heard of Alice Munro until she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature and when she gained the spotlight, she gained one additional follower.
Alice Munro has been repeatedly hailed as one of our greatest living writers, a reputation that has been growing for years. The stories brought together here span a quarter century, drawn from some of her earliest books, The Beggar Maid and The Moons of Jupiter, through her recent best-selling collection, Runaway.
Here are such favorites as “Royal Beatings” in which a young girl, her father, and stepmother release the tension of their circumstances in a ritual of punishment and reconciliation; “Friend of My Youth” in which a woman comes to understand that her difficult mother is not so very different from herself; and “The Albanian Virgin,” a romantic tale of capture and escape in Central Europe that may or may not be true, told by an elderly married woman to her younger friend who is on a desperate adventure of her own..
Munro’s incomparable empathy for her characters, the depth of her understanding of human nature, and the grace and surprise of her narrative add up to a richly layered and capacious fiction. Like the World War I soldier in the title story, whose letters from the front to a small-town librarian he doesn’t know change her life forever, Munro’s unassuming characters insinuate themselves in our hearts and take permanent hold.
Alice Munro’s Best contains 17 works:
- Royal Beatings
- The beggar maid
- The turkey season
- The moons of Jupiter
- The progress of love
- Miles City, Montana
- Friend of my youth
- Carried away
- The Albanian virgin
- A wilderness station
- Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage
- Save the reaper
- The bear came over the mountain.
I did like the stories a little. A little bit of Canadian fiction directed at mature women never hurt anyone. I loved how there was a clear differentiation between me and them type of thoughts.
“Poverty in girls is not attractive unless combined with sweet sluttishness, stupidity.”
I also liked how the stories felt like you were listening to your auntie or your grandma talk about her youth. It’s fascinating – all those tales about WW II, about unrequited love, about people who did not reconnect… but the more you hear, the more you eye the exit or start thinking of a polite excuse to stop listening.
Alice Munro is a cosy read, and if you dip into her works only occasionally, you are rewarded with little gems. Munro knows people, knows women, and even though some stories end up with a happy finish, reading several stories back-to-back made me realise that the majority of the main characters in these stories are very similar: female, middle-aged (or older) and unhappy in some way. The stories became depressing, and kind of predictable. Aren’t there any happy middle-aged women who don’t cheat on their husbands, or haven’t been cheated on by their husbands, living in southwestern Ontario?
I suppose that’s why Margaret Atwood did the introduction. She’s well known about her prose discussing the finer points of adultery and cheating spouses.
Miles City, Montana
Writer remembers her childhood in Canada. The story begins with memory. “My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned.”
The narrator can describe the boy in detail, “like a heap of refuse that had been left out all winter”. But she states in only the third paragraph: “I don’t think I really saw all this.”
That is what happens with memory: it is unreliable but it presses onward.
We disliked the heavy, the uninventive, approach to being parents. I had a dread of turning into a certain kind of mother – the kind whose body sagged, who moved in a woolly-smelling, milky-smelling fog, solemn with trivial burdens. I believed that all the attention these mothers paid, their need to be burdened, was the cause of colic, bed-wetting, asthma. I favored another approach – the mock desperation, the inflated irony of the professional mothers who wrote for magazines.
Even if memory is fiction, it is of paramount importance: memory stacked upon memory.
In both of these instances, there are parallels in later situations which beg the readers to consider a string of questions: is a death in which a mother grieves less shameful? in what ways (if any) can a father legitimately grieve the loss of a child? is the parent-child relationship inherently characterized by anger?
But the reader cannot forget that the narrator has just stated that she does not trust her own memory, so all of these ideas and emotions surrounding these situations are unreliable as well. No other grownup, not even the narrator, has been let off the proverbial hook.
He was the only one I didn’t see giving consent. He couldn’t prevent anything, but he wasn’t implicated in anything, either – not like the others, saying the Lord’s Prayer in their unnaturally weighted voices, oozing religion and dishonor.
“Miles City, Montana” is not so much a story about drowning. One could argue that it is about memory. One could argue that it is about marriage. One could argue that it is about survival. One could argue that it is about whatever you imagine it to be about.
Rose is a young girl in the small town of Hanratty, whose family consists of her father, her step-mother, Flo, and her half-brother, Brian. Rose’s family lives on the poor side of Hanratty, behind a grocery store operated by Flo.
The young Rose has known only Flo for a mother; Flo stepped in after Rose’s own mother died suddenly. Most of what Rose knows growing up comes from the mouth of Flo: stories about the town’s history and colorful characters, and many warnings about possible punishments to be doled out for various infractions.
The punishments are never given by Flo, however, but by Rose’s father. Though he seems reluctant at first, it isn’t difficult for the man to get into a violent state with encouragement from his wife. Rose is an imaginative child with a fascination for words, and she pictures in her mind what a royal beating might be like.
you are drugged, in which you feel perfectly safe, sure, unreachable, and then without warning and right next to it a moment in which you know the whole protection has fatally cracked, though it is still pretending to hold soundly together, so there is a moment now – the moment, in fact, when Rose hears Flo step on the stairs – that contains for her both present peace and freedom and a sure knowledge of the whole down-spiralling course of events from now on.
After growing up in the little town of Hanratty, Ontario, Rose wins a scholarship to a prestigious Canadian university. During her first semester there, she finds a comfortable place to live, a part-time job, and a male admirer. She meets Patrick at the campus library when she is working a weekend shift, reshelving books, and he is one of the few people studying there. When she asks him if he has seen a man who has just grabbed her in the almost deserted building, he rushes to her defense. Rose can tell at once that he is both high-minded and high-strung—a nervous man who wants to become a history professor. She also soon sees that he is infatuated with her. She does not know, however, that he is the heir to a family business. She dates Patrick partly to spite her landlady, a spinster former English professor who encourages her “scholars” to stay away from “boys.” To Rose’s surprise, the landlady likes Patrick and tells her that he is one of the most eligible bachelors on campus.
It meant having those ugly tube lights and being proud of them.
During the Christmas holidays, Patrick takes Rose to visit his family’s luxurious home in British Columbia. Rose feels completely out of place among Patrick’s parents and sisters, but so does Patrick.
Braininess is not attractive unless combined with some signs of elegance; class.
After returning to the university, they become engaged, and Rose takes Patrick to meet her family in Hanratty, where Patrick is taken aback by the working-class culture and the country accents. Rose increasingly wonders what Patrick sees in her or wants from her.
Wishing up stew and fried chicken for those of inferior intelligence and handsomer means. Blocked off by the steam tables, the uniform, by decent hard work that nobody need be ashamed of, by publicly proclaimed braininess and poverty
Nevertheless, she finds herself saying all the right things to people who ask to see her engagement ring and ask about her wedding plans. As year-end exams approach, she breaks off her relationship with Patrick but relents when she meets him to return his ring.
She was startled and irritated by such an exposure. He took such chances; had nothing ever taught him not to take such chances? But maybe he didn’t, after all. He knew she would have to say something reassuring. Though she was hoping not to, she longed to say judiciously.
They marry and have children but continue their pattern of separation and reconciliation, with subtle variations, for a decade.
Rose would shiver with irritation and misery.
She had never known before how some places could choke you off, choke off your very life
Eventually, they divorce. Another decade later, when Rose is a successful television interviewer and Patrick is a successful professor, they see each other in an airport. Rose smiles, realizing that she could throw herself at Patrick again but knowing better. He makes an ugly face. What remains of their relationship is this story, which she tells to many friends and lovers in the new age of honesty.
The Turkey Season
In the story, the adult narrator looks back at a time in the late 1940s when, at age 14, she took a job as a turkey gutter for the Christmas season.
How could these women’s hands be so gifted, so delicate and clever – for I knew they would be as good at dozens of other jobs as they were at gutting; they would be good at quilting and darning and painting and papering and kneading dough and setting out seed lings – and their thinking so slapdash, clumsy, infuriating?
The story goes into great detail about the various other workers at the Turkey Barn — Herb Abbott, the mysterious and alluring supervisor; two middle-aged sisters, Lily and Marjorie, skillful gutters who take pride in never letting their husbands “come near” them; cheerful Irene, young, pregnant, and belatedly married; Henry, who periodically drinks whisky from his thermos and who, at age 86, is still “a devil for work”; Morgan, the rough-edged owner; Morgy, his teenage son; Gladys, Morgan’s fragile sister, who brings her own soap to prevent allergies, frequently calls in sick, and is rumored to have suffered a nervous breakdown. Finally, there is Brian, a crass, lazy newcomer.
How attractive, how delectable, the prospect of intimacy is, with the very person who will never grant it. I can still feel the pull of a man like that, of his promising and refusing. I would still like to know things. Never mind facts. Never mind theories, either
About the Author
Alice Munro, born as Alice Ann Laidlaw, is a Canadian writer who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her lifetime body of work. She specializes in short story writing and is known for her easy-to-read and moving style that explores human complexities effortlessly. She is regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers of fiction. The focus of her stories is her native place, southwestern Ontario, and she often describes the local people, their aspirations and lifestyles in her writings. She began writing as a teenager and published her first story as a student. Her first collection of stories, ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ was highly appreciated and won the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary prize. Her strong regional focus and complex female characters are characteristic of her writings. Most of her works belong to the literary genre known as Southern Ontario Gothic. One recurrent theme in the stories she wrote in her youth was that of a girl coming of age and dealing with the associated challenges and confusions. Maturing as a writer and a woman, the focus of her stories shifted to the challenges faced by middle-aged and elderly women. A prolific writer, she continues to write even today, in spite of battling several health problems at the age of 81.