Have you ever read a book that changed your life? I have. The book is Lives of Girls and Women by Canadian short story author Alice Munro. This July, she turned 89. During the last fifty years, she’s won just about every award a fiction writer can win: the Nobel Prize for literature, the International Booker Prize, three Governor-General Awards, two Giller prizes, several Trillium awards and the U.S. National Book Award.
Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker magazine, The Atlantic and The Paris Review. The stories are luminous, flowing with intricate detail, packed with Munro’s sharp and sometimes wicked observations that darken her stories with an ominous sense of something evil or harmful hiding below the surface of everyday life.
I read Lives of Girls and Women when I was in first-year university. Never had I felt so entirely revealed. Here was a writer and a book of stories that perfectly understood my hidden feelings, the ones I could never reveal to anyone. Munro dissects the fears, the transgressions, the guilt and even the joy of being a girl or a woman. Her stories changed my life: for the first time, I realized I was not alone.
Lives of Girls and Women is set in the fictional town of Jubilee, Ontario. Of course, Jubilee is based on Munro’s actual hometown, Wingham, a small, unassuming place in Huron County close to the shores of Lake Huron. It’s remote, with deadly cold and snowy winters. But in its day, Wingham boasted its own television and radio stations, library, an array of churches, the city hall and the post office. It was a whole society unto itself, and Munro is best when she describes both the eccentric characters who make Wingham so fascinating and the delineations between town folk and farm folk, between the wealthy and the poor, between the accepted and the shunned in the town’s rigid social pecking order.
Del Jordan, the main character and narrator of the stories, is precocious, distrustful of the norms of small-town Ontario life, aware of the differences between her straight-laced aunts who live on a farm and her daring, unsettling mother, who muses, “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes, but it is up to us to make it come.” She says to Del: “I hope you will —use your brains. Use your brains. Don’t be distracted. Once you make that mistake, of being—distracted, over a man, your life will never be your own.”
I first set eyes on Munro in 1971 after she’d published Lives of Girls and Women. She looked anything but my standard notion of what a “lady author” should look like. I suppose, back then, I stored pictures of English writers Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf in my mind, plain-looking women who weren’t vulnerable, I imagined, to the actual dangers of romance. Alice Munro was utterly different, with her gorgeous black wavy hair, ravishing smile, and voluptuous figure. As I recall, the night she read from her book, she wore a white cotton peasant blouse tucked into a multi-coloured, full skirt. On her feet were three-inch heels, not the brown oxfords that I expected from a proper lady writer.
In some ways, she reminded me of my own mother, dark-haired and full-figured, but unlike my mother, Munro was glowing. She appeared happy, unlike my mother, who stayed home most of the time and spoke to me about a book she once started to write called “The Corn is High.” My mother remarked as we drove through the tall cornfields of Essex County, “If I ever finish my book, I’d like to describe these fields of corn, how brave and silly they are, not realizing that within days they’ll be cut down dead.” That was my mother, not entirely different from Del Jordan’s mother in Lives of Girls and Women. Just as unhappy. Just as restless.
My mother never read Munro’s books. Mostly she signed out novels from the public library in Windsor, novels such as Valley of the Dolls. Her favourite was Marjorie Morgenstern, a 1955 novel by Herman Wouk, about a woman who wants to become an actress.
Years later, I interviewed Munro for a piece I was writing for Books in Canada. We met at her daughter’s Queen Street West third floor walk-up in Toronto. She was just as beautiful as I remembered her. She sat across from me, sipping a coke from a bottle with a straw. Looking me straight in the eyes, she said, “If you’re going to write a novel of your own you must dig down straight to the bone. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing.” It took me another 30 years to publish my first novel, but somehow I got down to the bone.
When my daughter was at university, I lent her my copy of Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. We still keep it today, shuffling the dog-eared paperback between us when we re-read it. Right now, I’m teaching a seminar class about the stories, so my daughter and I are engaging in spirited and involved telephone conversations about the meaning of the opening story in the book, “The Flat Roads.” I believe Uncle Benny is an innocent; my daughter doesn’t. Times change, but the Munro stories hold their glorious power over us, over girls and women, helping us discover who we might be and what, if we’re shrewd and lucky, we might be capable of escaping.