A Tribute to Munro

The two companion volumes of critical studies devoted to Alice Munro’s works and edited by J. R. (Tim) Struthers pay tribute to Munro’s art of the short story. Since Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, several such critical volumes have appeared. What distinguishes Struthers’ double publication is first its length, with an impressive total of more than 850 pages, and the variety of voices that can be gathered in so many pages: Struthers embraces the reception of Munro’s works in a broad, generous, eclectic way. The two books thus include early scholarship on Munro: eleven of the twenty contributions in volume I, and seven of the twenty contributions in volume II, a few of which have been revised, were previously published. That includes pieces by Louis K. MacKendrick, editor of the first book of criticism on Munro’s work, and W. R. Martin, author of the first full-length study on Munro’s work. The volumes also include work by two scholars at doctoral and masters’ level, and a whole range in between, from seasoned to more recent Munro readers. Contributions are by academics, several of whom are also fellow writers (Jack Hodgins, George Elliott Clarke, and many others), as well as Munro’s friend Reg Thompson, editor and publisher Douglas Gibson, and biographers Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Robert Thacker. Most authors are from Canada, and a handful from the US, the UK, and France. Some contributors appear in both volumes. Each volume obviously has a specific focus, as suggested by the titles, but regrettably there is no introduction in either.

The first volume, Country, echoes the importance of locale in Munro’s work, which early on earned her the label of “regional writer,” a label that she rejects, as a colloquial naming of the region of southwestern Ontario as “Alice Munro Country.” The attention paid to “country” in Struthers’ book reflects not simply Munro’s interest in southwestern Ontario, also known as “Souwesto,” but also that of Struthers, who is himself a native of London, Ontario, and has spent most of his career at the University of Guelph. The book starts with some personal tributes, with a literary tour of Munro places by Douglas Gibson; a personal response by Judith Thompson to “Spelling,” and another by John Lee to “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”; James Reaney’s “ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture”; and Reg Thompson’s recollection of the day Munro received the Nobel. Then follows an unpublished 1988 interview of Munro by Struthers, mainly on The Progress of Love (1986). The rest of the volume is made up of essays that focus on place: Dennis Duffy reflects on Munro’s historical fiction in “Meneseteung” and The View from Castle Rock; Alec Follett on Munro’s sense of “wonder” at her region in The View; Coral Ann Howells on the intimacy of place in several stories. John Weaver proposes to read Munro as an interpreter of Ontario cultural history. Ian Rae analyzes how Munro’s mapping is done in “Walker Brothers’ Cowboy” in relation to British colonization. George Elliott Clarke interprets Munro’s associations in Lives of Girls and Women with Italian culture and Blackness as part of a sexual liberation process. W. R. Martin and Warren U. Ober examine the notion of change in small-town Ontario in “Spaceships Have Landed.” William Butt analyzes characters’ dual need to both conform and transgress in “Open Secrets.” Shelley Hulan construes ethnicity and class in “Powers” in the way Nancy “gypsifies” Tessa. Ailsa Cox reflects, as a writer and MA creative writing instructor, on what can be learned from (re-)reading “Meneseteung.” Louis K. MacKendrick analyzes narrative voice in “Meneseteung” as it navigates between history and life. Marianne Micros studies poetry and the figure of the poet in “Meneseteung.” The volume ends with a bibliography of 401 entries on Munro’s work or related topics.

The leading thread in volume II, Everlasting, is the resonance of Munro’s stories— how they stay with the reader. The volume opens with four essays that focus on Munro’s style: Charles May analyzes the form and mystery of the short story as seen by Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Munro; Catherine Sheldrick Ross examines the place of material personal to Munro’s life in Dear Life; Michael Trussler explores the notion of assemblage as literary technique, focusing on “Vandals”; Megan LaPierre studies musicality in two stories and the “Finale” of Dear Life. The subsequent essays are each devoted to the final story of one of Munro’s fourteen collections: W. R. Martin considers the links between Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Joyce’s Dubliners; Gwendolyn Guth studies social class in “Dance of the Happy Shades”; Neil K. Besner comments on the role of the epilogue in Lives of Girls and Women; Louis K. MacKendrick studies metaphor in “The Ottawa Valley.” Lawrence Mathews reflects on Munro’s art of narrative disarrangement in Who Do You Think You Are?; Timothy McIntyre on the representation of the real in “The Moons of Jupiter.” Karen Houle writes on generations in “White Dump”; Tracy Ware on comedy in “Wig Time”; Janice Fiamengo on sin in “Vandals”; Sandra Sabatini on mothers and daughters in “My Mother’s Dream”; Héliane Ventura on language in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”; Struthers on myth in “Powers”; William Butt on messaging in “Messenger”; Dennis Duffy and Monika Lee, respectively, on historicism and fractal fiction in “Too Much Happiness”; and Robert Thacker on the mother in the “Finale” of Dear Life.

The two volumes thus form a compendium of essays on important, well-established critical paths into Munro’s work—on place, on ending—making existing articles available in book form and offering fresh ones on these topics, with many truly enlightening contributions. The limits of the two books are found in the way they leave out important veins of recent critical work related to affect, care, aging, and disability, approaches that suggest new ways of reading Munro and are highly significant to many contemporary readers.

*Erratum: A previous version of this review appearing online referred to the “nineteen contributions in volume I,” when there are in fact twenty contributions in the volume.

This review “A Tribute to Munro” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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