Day 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

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Day 928: The View from Castle Rock

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe View from Castle Rock is an earlier Munro collection of short stories than Family Furnishings, which I previously reviewed. Since Family Furnishings is an anthology of Munro’s stories over the course of her career, I had already read several of the stories in The View from Castle Rock.

All of these stories have to do with the history of Munro’s family. In “No Advantages,” she has traveled to the area of Scotland where the Laidlaws came from. This story incorporates excerpts from other writings and quotes the epitaphs of some of her ancestors. It explains their hard life and the kinds of people her 18th century ancestors were.

In “The View from Castle Rock” Munro relates a family legend about how their drunken great-great-great grandfather James Laidlaw took his son Andrew up onto Castle Rock in Edinburgh to view America, probably as a joke, since they were looking at Fife. Although he talks of emigration throughout his life, he is unhappy when some of his sons finally take him and their families to America. This story is about their voyage and the fates of some of the family on board.

Other stories are more recent. “Hired Girl” is about a summer when Munro worked as a hired girl at a beach house on an island. For that summer, she had to learn that her employers did not consider her an equal. This was a tough lesson, as her mother especially had always had some pretensions of superiority even though they were poor.

In “Home” she revisits home after living away for some years. Her father has remarried after her mother’s death, and her old house has changed almost completely.

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe stories in this collection are powerful, relating the hard life of her family farming and raising fur, their close-mouthed quality, pride, and stubbornness. She is courageous in her ability to look at everything with honesty, even her own foibles.

One comment I have to make is on the cover of my Vintage International edition, shown here. It has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the book and gives an entirely misleading idea of the stories. The only story that even faintly is about a beach is “Hired Girl,” and the girl is not exactly lying around in the sand. Sometimes I wonder what publishers are thinking. The cover that I used at top is much better.

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Day 709: Family Furnishings

Cover for Family FurnishingsBest Book of the Week!
I felt it was about time I read something by Alice Munro, having only ever encountered a story or two in a magazine. Now, I only wish I’d read her earlier. A note in Family Furnishings explains that the stories were selected to cover the entire time of Munro’s writing career, although it also refers to two volumes. So, I assume this volume is from the latter half.

I am usually more a long fiction person, because I like to get thoroughly involved in what I’m reading, and short fiction doesn’t usually accomplish that. But in this case, I found myself completely absorbed in story after story.

Early on in the volume, I thought I detected a pattern of Munro telling how the different characters formed their families, sometimes in unusual ways. Later, I thought I might have imagined this pattern, or it may not fit all the stories. In any case, the stories are spell-binding, often toward the end revealing something that happened earlier than the timeframe of the story and illuminating some truth. Some of the stories appear to be autobiographical and some may be about Munro’s ancestors.

“The Love of a Good Woman” at first seems to be two unconnected stories, one about three boys discovering a car in the river with a body in it, the other about a nurse discovering tender feelings for a man she knew in high school while she is nursing his dying wife. Yet, it turns suddenly into a murder mystery. But Munro somehow makes this a banal and everyday event.

In “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” we seem to be reading about a swindle. An old man’s servant suddenly runs off with his dead daughter’s furniture to live with his ex-son-in-law. But halfway through the story, we meet two adolescent girls, Edith and Sabitha, who are actually controlling this situation through a prank.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is the touching but even more complex source of the wonderful movie¬†Away from Her, about a man helplessly observing his wife’s growing loss of memory from Alzheimer’s. In “The Children Stay,” a young woman walks away from her family during a vacation on Vancouver Island to leave with her lover.

Several of the stories are about Munro’s own childhood—how her father began raising animals for fur too late to make a success of it and had to go work in a foundry, how her mother suffered for years from Parkinson’s, how the truth of a story long told about a crazy neighbor’s behavior when Munro was a baby suddenly was revealed¬†years later when she saw a poem in a newspaper.

All of these stories show us the complexities and depths of human interactions. They are minutely observed and beautifully written. I’ll soon be looking for more to read by Alice Munro.

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