A new collection of stories by Alice Munro is always a major event. This new collection -- her most personal to date -- is no exception.
Alice Munro's stories are always wonderful and so ingrained with truths about life that readers always want to know where they came from. In this book, Alice Munro tells us.
In her Foreword (an unusual feature in itself), she explains how she, born Alice Laidlaw in Ontario, in recent years became interested in the history of her Laidlaw ancestors. Starting in the wilds of the Scottish Borders, she learned a great deal about a famous ancestor, born around 1700, who, as his tombstone records, "for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day." She traced the family's history with the help of that man's nephew, the famous writer James Hogg, finding to her delight that each generation of the family had produced a writer who wanted to record what had befallen them.
In this way, she was able to follow the family's voyage to Canada in 1818, and their hard times as pioneers -- once a father dies on the same day that a daughter is born in the same frontier cabin. "I put all this material together over the years," Alice tells us, "and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something almost like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations."
As the book goes down through the generations, we come to Robert Laidlaw, Alice's father, and then, at the book's heart, the stories become first-person stories, set during her lifetime. So is this a memoir? No. She drew on personal experiences, "but then I did anything I wanted to with this material, because the chief thing I was doing was making a story."
The resulting collection of stories range from the title story -- where through a haze of whiskey Alice's ancestors gaze north from Edinburgh Castle at the Fife coast, believing that it is North America -- all the way to the final story, where we travel with "Alice Munro" today. In the author's words, these stories "pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on."
All of them are Alice Munro stories. There could be no higher praise.