Canadian writer Alice Munro died this past week. She was ninety-two. I won’t go into the details of her life and work; you can read all that in this excellent article from CBC. I’ll just sum up by saying that she was revered in Canada and around the world by those who read her work. She won all the prizes, some more than once. And she was a very, very wise woman.

Alice Munro meant a lot to me both as a reader and as a writer. And as an ordinary Canadian who loves to read about ordinary lives. In an interview I listened to this morning she said that she considered all lives to be extraordinary, that she’d never met anyone she considered ordinary. I guess that’s why she could write so eloquently about ordinary lives. She said that all of her stories started with a real person or a real event. In the writing of her story, she said, these real people became disguised as she built upon the initial idea, layer upon layer. She also said that what interested her was not “dissecting people”, but exploring and “celebrating the essential mystery of people.”

I loved that last bit. Because deep down we are all a mystery. To others and sometimes even to ourselves.

My “To Be Re-read” pile.

As a reader, I love Alice Munro’s work because she wrote about people I know. Not literally, of course. But her characters are housewives, mechanics, clerks, farmers, teachers… everyday people I might meet on a plane or in the grocery store. Her detailed, sometimes rambling stories make me believe that, under the surface, everyone’s life is worth exploring. Everyone’s life is burbling with interesting conflict, struggles, achievements.

I’m thinking here of a passage in Lives of Girls and Women when the young narrator listens eagerly to her mother gossip with a neighbour about people in the town and their plight. Husbands who drink, wives who drink, children who die, or who are born with infirmities. I love that Munro’s characters are heroes in small ways as they battle disease or poverty or society’s disapproval. I remember listening to adults talk when I was a kid and thinking how cool and interesting or shocking and painful everyone else’s life seemed. While mine was boring and predictable.

Reading Alice Munro makes me think about the people I’ve met in my own life. Like my uncle who was so shy I never really knew him at all. But who could play the piano so beautifully that when I first heard him play in my fifties I almost fell over. Or my grade twelve Math teacher who dyed her hair pitch black, who wore darned pantyhose, and who scared the bejesus out of us.

Or the cheerful thirty-something cashier in the grocery store where my mum shopped twenty years ago, who wore skimpy tops and had too many tattoos. Who greeted everyone as if she hadn’t a care in the world. She always called Mum by name and they chatted briefly, and when we left Mum would say what a lovely girl she was. I remember thinking she’d make a great character in an Alice Munro story. I don’t know what made me think of her now, so many years later.

Sometimes Munro’s stories make me think of strangers I’ve never met. But have seen and noticed. Haven’t you ever wondered about the man who sat in front of you on the train talking on his phone the whole time?

Or the woman across the aisle who didn’t eat or drink the whole journey, even though we were in the first-class carriage and the free treats were delightful? She just stared out the window, and shook her head at the offers of snacks, wine, dinner, and even coffee and chocolate.

What was going on there? Of course it could have been something totally mundane. Or it could’ve been something really interesting.

Munro, left, receives her 1986 Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction writing from Governor General Jeanne Sauvé in Toronto on May 27, 1987. source

Maybe I love Alice Munro’s stories because I’m just basically a nosy person. I mean, aren’t all avid readers basically nosy people?

I love hearing other people’s stories as much as I do reading them. When we were on strike for five weeks back in the early nineties, I remember announcing to Hubby that my goal was to find out the story of everyone on my picket line. I knew these people. I’d been working with them for three years. “But I didn’t really know them,” I said to Hubby. I was amazed at some of the stories my colleagues told me as we walked with our picket signs. One of my friends told me her birth certificate says she was born “at sea.” How cool is that?

I won’t go on and on about what Alice Munro means to me as a reader, and as a writer. I think you get the gist. She has always inspired me to look at everyone with interest. And to see everything as being worthy of writing about. I plan to revisit her work in the coming weeks.

I got stuck in this afternoon. Rereading the story “The Albanian Virgin” in Munro’s collection Open Secrets. I love that story. I remember hearing Munro tell a CBC interviewer about the story that spawned the story. How in Albania back in the day a woman who was not eligible for marriage or who did not want to marry could become like a man. She could swear off men and be declared “a virgin.” Whereupon she donned “men’s clothes and had her own gun, and her own horse if she could afford one, and she lived as she liked” (Munro, Open Secrets, 103.)

A woman living as she likes. Who would have thought when I first read Munro’s story back in the nineties that this concept would be so in jeopardy in the year 2024?

Oh dear… I’d better end this here, my friends, before I go off on a tirade about women’s right to self-determination.

Maybe we should all become Albanian virgins. What do you think?

If you haven’t read Alice Munro, now is the time to remedy that. And if you haven’t read her in a while maybe now is the time to revisit her work. You can find all her short story collections here.

P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for my blog expenses.

P.P.S. I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next three weeks. Hubby and I leave for New Brunswick in a few days. We’ll be away for two weeks. Normally I would post during this time, but to be honest I feel in need of a respite from blogging. My well of inspiration sorely needs replenishment. I’ll be back in early June. 🙂

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50 thoughts on “Revisiting Alice Munro”

  1. A lovely tribute to a great writer, Sue. I’ve pulled my copies of her books down from my shelves as well. So many memories associated with each one . . .
    Enjoy your time in NB — and profit from the blog break. I understand very well what you mean about needing one 😉

  2. I saw Ms Munro in the local Safeway about ten years ago. She was with her daughter.
    No one recognized her but I certainly did. She looked small and rather frail even back then. I so wanted to yell “ a Canadian icon is in our midst” but I didn’t say a word of course.
    It was a thrill for sure.
    Every time I go to a Munro’s’ books I think of her.
    A Canadian treasure.

    1. I loved Alice Munro’s characters. As I tell my husband when we discuss books, I need real characters in my books, so that I can get to know each of them and carry them with me afterwards.

  3. Bien que je ne vous connaisse pas dans la vraie vie , j’éprouve pour vous une réelle tendresse ,celle d’une âme sœur.
    La mode a représenté pour nous l’attrait pour la nouveauté et nous a permis de nous renouveler a nos propres yeux.
    Désormais l’opprobre est jetée sur ce mode de vie a cause de son impact négatif sur la planète .
    On oublie de citer les bénéfices qu’il a engendré en terme d’emploi .
    Notre univers mental s’est amoindri.
    Personnellement cela me traumatise dans ma propre vie et dans la vision que j’ai du monde.Et fait peser sur moi une forme de culpabilité que je récuse .
    Vous avez raison il faut chercher d’autres sources d’inspiration,casser la routine du quotidien dans une société et un monde de plus en plus anxiogènes qui nous culpabilisent d’être ce que nous sommes.
    Bonnes vacances et prenez soin de vous!
    (Les travaux de ma maison sont terminés. Le jardin est replanté de roses et d’arbustes de toutes sortes ….
    Le plus dur reste à faire …déménager.
    Faire du neuf avec du vieux !!Se débarrasser de son ancienne carapace pour entrer dans une vie nouvelle.
    Casser les codes familiaux qui vous tirent en arrière ,qui vous culpabilisent de vouloir avancer en dépit de votre âge ,,,)

    1. Your sentence Notre univers mental c’est amoindri.
      I’m struck by how true that is. I wish English had a neat and tidy word like amoindre. Google translate makes it diminish, but somehow there is more to yours. A sense of deliberate subtraction rather than a passive fading away.
      Merci pour l’idée.

      Have a great vacation Sue.

    2. Mais pourquoi vous laisser culpabiliser? Soyez vous-même, vous façonnez aussi le monde et contribuez à sa richesse.
      f

    3. Fashion for me is about novelty in some ways, Celia. But that doesn’t have to entail shopping for new pieces. At least not all the time. Just reinventing what I already own is more fun sometimes than buying new. Especially if I find a fashion photo that uses something I have in my closet.
      P.S. I hope your move goes well. It is an ordeal. But how wonderful it will be when you are in your refurbished home.

  4. I haven’t read Alice Munro & yes , I must remedy that . Have a great holiday back in your homeland .

    1. Her early stories that are set up the Ottawa Valley have always resonated most for me. Hope you enjoy her work, Wendy. Start with Lives of Girls and Women… I’d suggest.

  5. That’s a lovely homage, Sue. Beautiful.
    Enjoy your time away…hope it’s everything you hope for. Xx

  6. I really enjoyed reading this Sue and yes, I often wonder about the lives of people I see daily or when travelling…
    Enjoy your well deserved break! Safe and happy travels to you and Stu
    Rosie xx

  7. Sue enjoy your holiday and please don’t stop blogging.

    I have never read any Alice Monroe. Which book should I start with, suggestions please.

    1. Maybe start with Alice Munro’s personal favorites—her 2009 collection: My Best Stories. The stories move from her early writing to her later years and include many of her well-known pieces like the “The Albanian Virgin”.

  8. Having only read a story or two by Munro in anthologies over the years, I took a couple of her books out of the library after reading of her death. What a wonderful writer! How have I missed her for so long? Anyway, I am devouring her work and thrilled I have so many wonderful hours ahead of me.

    Enjoy your break!

  9. You have captured exactly how reading an Alice Munro story is like “coming home”. She was always my preferred Canadian author.
    I can’t blame you for taking a well deserved break. Refresh and rejuvenate mind, body and soul and I shall look forward to reading your blog with my Sunday morning coffee when you return.

  10. I haven’t read any Alice Munro (yet) but have them now on my list to read and will look forward to them. Enjoy your break.

  11. What a lovely tribute to Alice Munro. I have never read any of her books but that will soon change. I enjoy an author Anne Tyler who also writes about everyday people and their lives. Enjoy your holiday with hubby. I’ll be looking forward to your return to the blog.

  12. A lovely tribute to a wonderful author! I first read Alice Munro in the early 80s when Lives of Girls and Women was part of a CanLit course at university. I have read most of her books since then, but possibly not all? Like many others, I will be doing some rereading in the coming days.

    Enjoy your blog break!

  13. I have always stayed away from short stories but now I think I will remedy that after reading your blog. I will miss your blogs but I wish you a wonderful holiday of rest and peace.

  14. This is a lovely post. I have only read one of Alice Munro’s collections, Runaway, but have planned, even before her passing, to read more. Short stories seem appropriate in the summer.
    I tend to confuse the literary Alices: Munro, Walker, McDermott, Hoffman, probably because I haven’t read enough of any of them.
    Enjoy your time away. I will be looking forward to a long book post when your return.

  15. What a lovely tribute Sue. I read Dear Life a few years back. I was a couple of stories in when my husband asked “What’s it about? I replied “Nothing”. Little did I know! What wonderful stories! Time to read another of Alice Munro’s treasures.

  16. I have never heard of Alice Munro in my neck of the woods. This will hopefully be remedied by a visit to the library.
    Have a lovely trip away and recharge your batteries.

  17. Huge, huge Alice Munro fan. After the first page, she gets her hooks into me and the outside world vanishes until I get to the end. And her endings never disappoint even though they are never quite I expected.

    As I once explained to a friend, it’s her way of setting up her endings—once you get to the finish, you realize that the clues were always there, just in the corner of your eye, but you were too caught up by your focus on the middle to pay attention. And that seems like such a perfect metaphor for life—we get transfixed by what is in front of us and all too often neglect to pay attention to what is happening at the edges until it’s too late.

    I don’t often reread books, but Alice Munro’s stories are the exception. You are right—her “ordinary” is always extraordinary.

    Enjoy your break, Sue!

  18. I’m so glad you wrote about Alice Munro! As soon as I heard of her death, I hoped that you would. As an English teacher (and avid reader), you HAD to have appreciated what a treasure she was! I also love her “ordinary” characters. Thank you for your post!

  19. Lovely post Sue. I agree that Munro was an accomplished author/story weaver. I shall be revisiting some of her works.
    Everyone needs a break. I hope you enjoy your vacation and return recharged. It’s a challenge and a risk posting anything on this platform. I hope you continue to find it worth your effort. Those of us who follow you look forward to reading your thoughts weekly. Like a weekly catch up with a good friend. Best

  20. I havent read anything by Alice Munro but you have inspired me to seek her out. thank you for the introduction!

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