Column: Words in Munro’s Dear Life are like a calm breath

Photo credit: Deb Stephenson, DLS Photography.

Photo credit: Deb Stephenson, DLS Photography.

Jennifer Cox is a communications graduate from the University of Windsor who is now a computer trainer for the Avon Maitland District School Board. She lives in Clinton with her husband and two children. She writes when she can find the time.


I can’t tell you when I started reading Alice Munro stories, or why – likely for an English class – but for many reasons I have stuck with her and read everything she’s ever written. She is my pick for that one person I’d like to have dinner and conversation with.

Dear Life, Munro’s most recent collection, contains 14 stories. The last four, given the title Finale are in the author’s words, “not quite stories…autobiographical in feeling,” and “the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.” Each of the first 10 stories are stories of women of all ages: a young Mom looking for a diversion, a single woman working away from home, women near the end of their lives, and girls in their childhood. The time period ranges from the ‘40s through to more current times.

In case you don’t know – and if you’re a local, this is a must-know – Alice Munro is a world-renowned award-winning writer, born and raised in Wingham, currently living in Clinton. Her stories often refer to the small towns in Huron County, sometimes by name, other times by landmark. Locals might catch glimpses of her here and there but she seems to live her life quite unassumingly and enjoys her privacy. My chances of getting together with her are slim and I often think of writing her a letter just to tell her that I appreciate and enjoy her writing and why I do. So here goes:

Dear Ms. Munro,

When I sit down with one of your books it’s like a breath of fresh air, not a breeze, just a nice calm breath. I can expect to be entertained, but subtly. It’s kind of like looking at a piece of art and being able to take your time to soak up all that it has to offer, details revealing themselves slowly, quietly, but distinctly. I don’t have to try hard to keep up and yet I am always surprised by a certain phrase, a turn of events, or dry humour. I like that your main characters are often female, and despite the varying ages, I can always find an understanding in each of them. They always seem to have clear insight regarding men and life, or in your stories they come to learn and experience a universal truth. It might just be a thought that they had or a reaction to another character or incident but I always feel like I could know these women.

These female characters are always real, less than perfect. Take Miss Vivien Hyde, young and naive, who arrives in the small northern town of Amundsen from Toronto to teach at the sanitorium for children with tuberculosis in the ‘40s. As she tells her story she seems to be mocking her own behaviour during the relationship she has with the doctor in charge at the sanitorium. When all I wanted was for Vivien to tell the good doctor where to go, she falls for him as though it’s simply her only option.

In the ‘40s I guess it might have been an expected way for women to be treated – especially by an older man. Despite his condescending attitude towards her she is attracted to him after their first dinner together at his home: “He put a dish towel round my waist to protect my dress…he laid his hand against my upper back. Such firm pressure…I could still feel that pressure…I enjoyed it. That was more important really than the kiss placed on my forehead later…A dry-lipped kiss, brief and formal, set upon me with hasty authority.”

Romance novel it is not but this is what I love about your writing. It’s real.

I also particularly enjoyed the story Haven with the nameless narrator retelling a story from when she was 13, in the ‘70s, and staying with her Aunt Dawn and Uncle Jasper, a doctor, while her parents taught in Ghana. The opening paragraph sums up life in a small town perfectly as towns, particularly in Canada, often experience societal changes and cultural shifts on the sidelines: “All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it, the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air.”

The contrast between the narrator’s mother and aunt is interesting, sisters but not alike, and the resulting comment on ways of life for females in the ‘70s: “She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say…My mother would talk right over my father…”

The narrator is the only child in her aunt and uncle’s home as they never had children lest they get in the doctor’s way: “The house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his…things had to be ready for his approval at any moment.” As the narrator learns more about the daily life of her aunt and uncle she is not so strong in her conviction that her parents and her much less structured family life are superior, “The slow realization that came to me was that such a regime could be quite agreeable.”

I loved the live music “incident,” occurring while the doctor is out, retold with all seriousness but laced with sarcasm and humour. I could feel the tension in the home when he returns. I could also feel myself losing empathy for the good, hard-working doctor as the narrator does: “There was a quantity of things that men hated. Or had no use for, as they said…They had no use for it, so they hated it. Maybe it was the same way I felt about Algebra…But I didn’t go so far as to want it wiped off the face of the earth for that reason.”

I am grateful for the last few stories in Dear Life as you say they are as close to your own life as anything you will ever write. The last story, called Dear Life, was the most important to me. It was exciting to get a glimpse of your childhood in Wingham, growing up in the ‘30s and ‘40s near the Maitland River. I appreciated your openness to talk about the early onset of your mother’s Parkinson��s when she was in her 40s and how it affected you and your father. The retelling of the “visitation of old Mrs. Netterfield” when you were a baby was chilling, in the way that small town tales can be.

I sensed regret, but not guilty regret, when you talk about writing poems as a youth, “…right around the time that I was being so intolerant of my mother, and my father was whaling the unkindness out of me. Or beating the tar out of me, as people would cheerfully say back then.”

I can’t describe what the last paragraph says to me other than it is real and true of humans: “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with…We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.”

As I close this letter, I will say that I enjoyed the realistic nostalgia of Dear Life and the glimpse into your life here in our great county.


Jennifer Cox

Written by on January 14, 2013 in Jennifer Cox - No comments

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