- The View From Castle Rock
There is a certain story in The View From Castle Rock; in it is a book, the name of which is not revealed until the story's end. In order to fully comprehend the story, one must be familiar with the book and its date of publication because this knowledge sheds light on three characters. In the introduction to said book, Dorothy Canfield wrote, "The person who has set his teeth into a kind of fruit new to him, is usually as eager as he is unable to tell you how it tastes." Something of that sort happens to the soul who takes on the task of describing The View From Castle Rock. It is indeed a strange fruit.
Alice Munro's work has always been imbued with a sense of history, a sense of place and, many have suspected, a significant amount of autobiographical material, so what she is doing in The View From Castle Rock should not come as a great surprise to readers familiar with her writing. Partly fact, partly fiction, in some places a family history, in others a memoir, the book is a result of Munro sewing together a very personal patchwork quilt from the scraps of her family's history and her own memories.
Castle Rock begins with a short foreword in which the author explains how it came into being. The book proper is divided into [End Page 181] two sections. In the first, "No Advantages," Munro has visited the Scotland home of her ancestors, looked in the records and gathered all she can of what any of them wrote down. She writes about Ettrick, Scotland, and her ancestors who lived there, but quickly begins imagining things. Specifically, she focuses on one ancestor, Will O'Phaup, and his encounters with the fairy people. Then, incorporating her predecessors' extant writings, she fashions a piece of historical fiction about the 1818 crossing of James Laidlaw and his family from Leith, Scottland, to Quebec. "No Advantages" continues in this vein, slipping in and out of the roles of historian and storyteller, accounting, ruminating, conjecturing, eventually reaching the point where Munro's memories and the words of her parents and grandparents can come into play, ending in a long chapter whose principal subject is her father.
If her father's history seems a bit longer than it deserves to be, it pays dividends in the second half of the book, entitled "Home." Indeed the structure of the whole book can be viewed as working in much the same way as many of Munro's longer stories, which take excursions down side roads, the points of which are not immediately apparent. The section begins with three stories, all told by a girl/woman—the apex of the book. The first is called "Fathers," and it resonates much more strongly than it might because of what has preceded it. The next two, "Lying Under the Apple Tree" and "Hired Girl," are both concerned with the matters of class and sex. Each of them ends with the heroine's nose in a book. Autobiographical? Well, each contains that candid sexuality and those subtle nuances Munro's readers know well, and also things verifiably fictitious: voyeur beware. It is here that Munro is at once both most satisfying and most tantalizing. After these three obvious fictions, however, the book morphs back into memoir, with a bit of schooling for the reader on Ontario's geology.
As a storyteller, Alice Munro is peerless, unearthing extraordinary drama from the ground of common people. Alice Munro the memoirist struggles to do the same, and if the struggle results in less consistent success, her fans will nonetheless be satisfied.