'View from Castle Rock' by Alice Munro and 'Moral Disorder' by Margaret Atwood
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The Canada of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro is a spare, scrubbed landscape of isolated farms, woodlots, gravel roads and graveyards, dotted here and there with small market towns of brick churches and plain-front stores.
To the outsider, an American, say, taking a detour on a visit to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, not a lot's happening among the white, stolid folk.
By Alice Munro
As Munro admits in her memoir of family life:
"The town ... stays very much the same -- nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless, it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret plentiful messages for me have drained away."
Munro, 75, says "The View From Castle Rock" is her final book in a career covering five decades and creating hundreds of the best short stories written in North America. Many of those stories, as is this book, are set near her birthplace west of Toronto near Lake Huron.
Her finale is a family autobiography that begins in a bleak corner of Scotland, home of her ancestors who sailed to Canada in 1818, and ends in the flat countryside of today's Huron County, Ontario.
Her ancestors were hard-skinned, old-time Presbyterian farmers and farm wives. Talk and feelings were held in check, money was scarce and a change of scenery unlikely.
When one of the clan moved his family to the United States, only to die of cholera, the Canadians fetched his widow and children back north, believing "there was something about all this rushing away, loosing oneself entirely from family and past, there was something rash and self-trusting about it that might not help a man, that might put him more in the way of such an accident, such a fate."
Stay put, make the best of it, suffer through death, sickness, misfortune, bad marriages and ill-advised decisions and have your grave plot secured. That's the obvious message of this land.
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday ($23.95)
The secret messages that Munro carried when she made her escape at 18 to college, then to Canada's west coast, are the stuff of her fiction, and now, her memoir.
While poverty, hardship, bleak futures and a harsh religion stunted many folks, others had rich inner lives of hope and romance. Some, like Munro, found it in literature, others in communion with the land and its animals, others in illicit affairs or unrequited longing.
The title story tells of the journey to America, a fantasy land that Munro's clan, the Laidlaws, believed it could see from Castle Rock above Edinburgh. Drawing from letters and a diary of the passage, she describes the experience shared by millions of their escape from hopelessness.
This first section, "No Advantages," is awkwardly written, governed largely by the memories of others. It's in the second part, "Home," where Munro emerges fully, writing from her experiences.
Those finding her work for the first time in this book, should put it down and read her earlier stories first. Only then can they best understand and sense the fine and honest character of Alice Munro.
Margaret Atwood is another matter entirely. Unlike her fellow Canadian, she has written in most genres -- novels, poems, essays as well as short stories. Unlike Munro, she has rearranged the story of her life into fiction.
Nell, her heroine, goes through similar experiences on her way to the middle-aged woman found in the opening story, "The Bad News," living with Tig, her companion of many years and one of two men at the center of this book.
"Moral Disorder" is the story of a lively yet unsure woman growing to maturity in the late 20th-century, trying out various roles, including Earth Mother, as she and Tig try to make a go of a farm north of Toronto.
The title story, taken from an unfinished novel by Atwood's partner, Graeme Gibson, is a colorful and ultimately sad account of farm life including a young ram who becomes too attached to Nell.
"The Labrador Fiasco," though, is the most moving tale in the 11-story collection. Nell's elderly father is trying to hang on to his memory after a stroke. She helps by working through a well-known account of the fate of three young explorers in an unmapped part of that far north territory.
"My father says, 'They took the wrong supplies.' This pleases him; he himself would have not taken the wrong supplies. In fact, he would never have gone on this ill-advised journey."
Like the explorers, though, her father gets lost as well in the confusion and memory loss of stroke. "I never thought this would happen," he says.
His daughter's best efforts to reassure him no longer work.
This is one of several stories about growing old, contrasting with the energetic, hopeful characters of earlier tales.
Not autobiographical in the conventional sense, Atwood's "Moral Disorder" describes a place we're all heading to as we age -- unmapped territory where we might lose our way without the right supplies.
Atwood provides one of them -- an accurate road map.
First Published November 19, 2006 12:00 am