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Synopsis

WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE® IN LITERATURE 2013

Alice Munro mines her rich family background, melding it with her own experiences and the transforming power of her brilliant imagination, to create perhaps her most powerful and personal collection yet.

 

A young boy, taken to Edinburgh’s Castle Rock to look across the sea to America, catches a glimpse of his father’s dream. Scottish immigrants experience love and loss on a journey that leads them to rural Ontario. Wives, mothers, fathers, and children move through uncertainty, ambivalence, and contemplation in these stories of hopes, adversity, and wonder. The View from Castle Rock reveals what is most essential in Munro’s art: her compassionate understanding of ordinary lives.

Excerpt

No Advantages

This parish possesses no advantages. Upon the hills the soil is in many places mossy and fit for nothing. The air in general is moist. This is occasioned by the height of the hills which continually attract the clouds and the vapour that is continually exhaled from the mossy ground . . . The nearest market town is fifteen miles away and the roads so deep as to be almost impassable. The snow also at times is a great inconvenience, often for many months we can have no intercourse with mankind. And a great disadvantage is the want of bridges so that the traveller is obstructed when the waters are swelled . . . Barley oats and potatoes are the only crops raised. Wheat rye turnips and cabbage are never attempted . . .

There are ten proprietors of land in this parish: none of them resides in it.

Contribution by the Minister of Ettrick Parish, in the county of Selkirk, to the Statistical Account of Scotland, 1799




The Ettrick Valley lies about fifty miles due south of Edinburgh, and thirty or so miles north of the English border, which runs close to the wall Hadrian built to keep out the wild people from the north. The Romans pushed farther, and built some sort of fortifications called Antonine's Wall between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, but those did not last long. The land between the two walls has been occupied for a long time by a mix of people—Celtic people, some of whom came from Ireland and were actually called Scots, Anglo-Saxons from the south, Norse from across the North Sea, and possibly some leftover Picts as well.

The high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope. The word hope, as used in the local geography, is an old word, a Norse word--Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Gaelic words being all mixed up together in that part of the country, as you would expect, with some old Brythonic thrown in to indicate an early Welsh presence. Hope means a bay, not a bay filled with water but with land, partly enclosed by hills, which in this case are the high bare hills, the near mountains of the Southern Uplands. The Black Knowe, Bodesbeck Law, Ettrick Pen—there you have the three big hills, with the word hill in three languages. Some of these hills are now being reforested, with plantations of Sitka spruce, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they would have been bare, or mostly bare—the great Forest of Ettrick, the hunting grounds of the Kings of Scotland, having been cut down and turned into pasture or waste heath a century or two before.

The height of land above Far-Hope, which stands right at the end of the valley, is the spine of Scotland, marking the division of the waters that flow to the west into the Solway Firth and the Atlantic Ocean, from those that flow east into the North Sea. Within ten miles to the north is the country's most famous waterfall, the Grey Mare's Tail. Five miles from Moffat, which would be the market town to those living at the valley head, is the Devil's Beef Tub, a great cleft in the hills believed to be the hiding place for stolen cattle—English cattle, that is, taken by the reivers in the lawless sixteenth century. In the lower Ettrick Valley was Aikwood, the home of Michael Scott, the philosopher and wizard of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who appears in Dante's Inferno. And if that were not enough, William Wallace, the guerrilla hero of the Scots, is said to have hidden out here from the English, and there is a story of Merlin—Merlin—being hunted down and murdered, in the old forest, by Ettrick shepherds.

(As far as I know, my ancestors, generation after generation, were Ettrick shepherds. It may sound odd to have shepherds employed in a forest, but it seems that hunting forests were in many places open glades.)

Nevertheless the valley disappointed me the first time I saw it. Places are apt to do that when you've set them up in your imagination. The time of year was very early spring, and the hills were brown, or a kind of lilac brown, reminding me of the hills around Calgary. Ettrick Water was running fast and clear, but it was hardly as wide as the Maitland River, which flows past the farm where I grew up, in Ontario. The circles of stones which I had at first taken to be interesting remnants of Celtic worship were too numerous and well kept up to be anything but handy sheep pens.

I was travelling by myself, and I had come from Selkirk on the twice-a-week Shoppers' Bus, which took me no farther than Ettrick Bridge. There I wandered around, waiting for the postman. I'd been told that he would take me up the valley. The chief thing to be seen in Ettrick Bridge was a sign on a closed shop, advertising Silk Cut. I couldn't figure out what that might be. It turned out to be a well-known brand of cigarette.

After a while the postman came along and I rode with him to Ettrick Church. By that time it had begun to rain, hard. The church was locked. It disappointed me, too. Having been built in 1824, it did not compare, in historic appearance, or grim character, to the churches I had already seen in Scotland. I felt conspicuous, out of place, and cold. I huddled by the wall till the rain let up for a bit, and then I explored the churchyard, with the long wet grass soaking my legs.

There I found, first, the gravestone of William Laidlaw, my direct ancestor, born at the end of the seventeenth century, and known as Will O'Phaup. This was a man who took on, at least locally, something of the radiance of myth, and he managed that at the very last time in history—that is, in the history of the people of the British Isles—when a man could do so. The same stone bears the names of his daughter Margaret Laidlaw Hogg, who upbraided Sir Walter Scott, and of Robert Hogg, her husband, the tenant of Ettrickhall. Then right next to it I saw the stone of the writer James Hogg, who was their son and Will O'Phaup's grandson. He was known as The Ettrick Shepherd. And not far from that was the stone of the Reverend Thomas Boston, at one time famous throughout Scotland for his books and preaching, though fame never took him to any more important ministry.

Also, among various Laidlaws, a stone bearing the name of Robert Laidlaw, who died at Hopehouse January 29th 1800 aged seventy-two years. Son of Will, brother of Margaret, uncle of James, who probably never knew that he would be remembered by his link to these others, any more than he would know the date of his own death.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather.

As I was reading these inscriptions the rain came on again, lightly, and I thought I had better start to walk back to Tushielaw, where I was to catch the school bus for my return ride to Selkirk. I couldn't loiter, because the bus might be early, and the rain might get heavier.

I was struck with a feeling familiar, I suppose, to many people whose long history goes back to a country far away from the place where they grew up. I was a naive North American, in spite of my stored knowledge. Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined.


MEN OF ETTRICK

Will O'Phaup

Here lyeth William Laidlaw, the far-famed Will o' Phaup, who for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day . . .

Epitaph composed by his grandson, James Hogg, on Will O'Phaup's tombstone in Ettrick Kirkyard.


His name was William Laidlaw, but his story-name was Will O'Phaup, Phaup being simply the local version of Far-Hope, the name of the farm he took over at the head of Ettrick Valley. It seems that Far-Hope had been abandoned for years when Will came to inhabit it. The house, that is, had been abandoned, because it was situated so high up at the end of the remote valley, and got the worst of the periodic winter storms and the renowned snowfall. The house of Potburn, the next one to it, lower down, was until recently said to be the highest inhabited house in all of Scotland. It now stands deserted, apart from the sparrows and finches busy around its outbuildings.

The land itself would not have belonged to Will, it would not even have been leased to him—he would have rented the house or got it as part of his shepherd's wages. It was never worldly prosperity that he was after.

Only Glory.



He was not native to the valley, though there were Laidlaws there, and had been since the first records were kept. The earliest man of that name I have come across is in the court records of the thirteenth century, and he was up on charges of murdering another Laidlaw. No prisons in those days. Just dungeons, mainly for the upper class, or people of some political importance. And summary executions--but those happened mostly in times of large unrest, as during the border raids of the sixteenth century, when a marauder might be hanged at his own front door, or strung up in Selkirk Square, as were sixteen cattle thieves of the same name—Elliott—on a single day of punishment. My man got off with a fine.

Will was said to be "one of the old Laidlaws of Craik"—about whom I have not been able to discover anything at all, except that Craik is an almost disappeared village on a completely disappeared Roman road, in a nearby valley to the south of Ettrick. He must have walked over the hills, a lad in his teens, looking for work. He had been born in 1695, when Scotland was still a separate country, though it shared a monarch with England. He would have been twelve years old at the time of the controversial Union, a young man by the time of the bitter failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, a man deep into middle age by the time of Culloden. There is no telling what he thought of those events. I have a feeling that his life was lived in a world still remote and self-contained, still harboring its own mythology and local wonders. And he was one of them.

The first story told of Will is about his prowess as a runner. His earliest job in the Ettrick Valley was as shepherd to a Mr. Anderson, and this Mr. Anderson had noted how Will ran straight down on a sheep and not roundabout when he wanted to catch it. So he knew that Will was a fast runner, and when a champion English runner came into the valley Mr. Anderson wagered Will against him for a large sum of money. The English fellow scoffed, his backers scoffed, and Will won. Mr. Anderson collected a fine heap of coins and Will for his part got a gray cloth coat and a pair of hose.

Fair enough, he said, for the coat and hose meant as much to him as all that money to a man like Mr. Anderson.

Here is a classic story. I heard versions of it—with different names, different feats—when I was a child growing up in Huron County, in Ontario. A stranger arrives full of fame, bragging of his abilities, and is beaten by the local champion, a simple-hearted fellow who is not even interested in a reward.

These elements recur in another early story, in which Will goes over the hills to the town of Moffat on some errand, unaware that it is fair day, and is cajoled into taking part in a public race. He is not well dressed for the occasion and during the running his country breeches fall down. He lets them fall, kicks his way out of them, and continues running in nothing but a shirt, and he wins. There is a great fuss made of him and he gets invited to dinner in the public house with gentlemen and ladies. By this time he must have had his pants on, but he blushes anyway, and will not accept, claiming to be mortified in front of such leddies.

Maybe he was, but of course the leddies' appreciation of such a well-favored young athlete is the scandalous and enjoyable point of the story.

Will marries, at some point, he marries a woman named Bessie Scott, and they begin to raise their family. During this period the boy-hero turns into a mortal man, though there are still feats of strength. A certain spot in the Ettrick River becomes "Will's Leap" to commemorate a jump he made, to get help or medicine for someone who was sick. No feat, however, brought him any money, and the pressures of earning a living for his family, combined with a convivial nature, seem to have turned him into a casual bootlegger. His house is well situated to receive the liquor that is being smuggled over the hills from Moffat. Surprisingly this is not whiskey, but French brandy, no doubt entering the country illegally by way of the Solway Firth—as it will continue to do despite the efforts late in the century of Robert Burns, poet and exciseman. Phaup becomes well known for occasions of carousing or at least of high sociability. The hero's name still stands for honorable behavior, strength, and generosity, but no more for sobriety.

Bessie Scott dies fairly young, and it is probably after her death that the parties have begun. The children will have been banished, most likely, to some outbuilding or the sleeping loft of the house. There does not appear to have been any serious outlawry or loss of respectability. The French brandy may be worth noting, though, in the light of the adventures that come upon Will in his maturity.


From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Foreword

Part One / No Advantages
No Advantages
The View from Castle Rock
Illinois
The Wilds of Morris Township
Working for a Living

Part Two / Home
Fathers
Lying Under the Apple Tree
Hired Girl
The Ticket
Home
What Do You Want to Know For?

Epilogue
Messenger
Alice Munro

About Alice Munro

Alice Munro - The View From Castle Rock

Photo © Derek Shapton

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published thirteen collections of stories and a novel. During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards, including two Giller Prizes, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. In 2013 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, Granta, and many other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages. She lives in Port Hope, Canada, on Lake Ontario.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Masterful. . . . Munro really does know magic: how to summon the spirits and the emotions that animate our lives.” —The Washington Post Book World

 

“Fascinating. . . . Munro’s powers are at their peak. . . . She continues to charge forward, shining a light on what is most fearsome and true.” —Chicago Tribune

 

“Exhilarating. . . . [Munro's] ability to travel into the minds and feelings of people long dead is uncanny.” —The New York Times Book Review

 

“Revelatory. . . . A work of aching authenticity.” —The Boston Globe

Praise from fellow writers:

“Her work felt revolutionary when I came to it, and it still does.” —Jhumpa Lahiri

“She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.” —Jonthan Franzen

“The authority she brings to the page is just lovely.” —Elizabeth Strout

“She’s the most savage writer I’ve ever read, also the most tender, the most honest, the most perceptive.” —Jeffery Eugenides

“Alice Munro can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can.”—Julian Barnes

“She is a short-story writer who…reimagined what a story can do.” —Loorie Moore

“There’s probably no one alive who’s better at the craft of the short story.” —Jim Shepard

“A true master of the form.” —Salman Rushdie

“A wonderful writer.” —Joyce Carol Oates 

Awards

WINNER 2009 Man Booker International Prize
WINNER 2013 Nobel Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

<p align="left">“Masterful ....Munro really does know magic: how to summon the spirits and the emotions that animate our lives.” —The Washington Post Book World <p align="left">  <p align="left">The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s conversation about Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, a collection of stories in which she transforms her family’s history—and her own—into gloriously imagined fiction.

About the Guide

In her most personal collection to date, Alice Munro has created stories based on her own past as well as by elaborating on the traces—letters, records, tombstones—left behind by her ancestors from Scotland who sailed for Canada in 1818.  In the title story, ten-year-old Andrew Laidlaw is taken by his father James to see the view of America—though later he learns that it’s really Fife—from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock. When the family takes ship for the new world, the father who had longed to leave Scotland becomes solidly a man of his homeland, nostalgic for the world he’s left behind. His daughter-in-law gives birth at sea, and his son becomes intimate with a young woman dying of tuberculosis. The immigrants struggle to create a new world for themselves, as their lives become a part of the history of the land they’ve settled. A father dies, a newborn baby disappears—apparently kidnapped—and is found again. In the second part of the book, Munro moves closer to her immediate family and her own girlhood in a world where families struggle to get by on small farms along Lake Huron. A hired girl, working for a wealthy family at a summer resort, is faced with the realization of her lack of status in the social world. In an apple orchard, a clever girl and a canny young man discover a private place for romance. A young woman about to be married hears about the love affairs of her grandmother and great aunt, and is offered a surprising gift. The landscape, throughout, is marked with human toil and traces of habitation, and all its vanishing details—a cellar hole, a grave—hold the stories of those who lived there long ago. In The View from Castle Rock, Munro brings the passions, the labor and the yearnings of the dead to life again, allowing readers to recognize, in them, ourselves.

About the Author

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published thirteen collections of stories as well as a novel, Lives of Girls and Women, and two volumes of Selected Stories. During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and two of its Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England’s W. H. Smith Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. In 2013 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages. She lives in Clinton, Ontario, near Lake Huron.

Discussion Guides

1. “No Advantages”
Visiting the graveyard of Ettrick Church, Munro finds the tombstone of her great-great-great-great grandfather, and is struck with a feeling that “Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined” [p. 7]. What is disturbing about this merging of past and present?

2. “The View from Castle Rock”
Agnes is a willful, sexually alert woman, trapped in her fate as a woman and mother [p. 72]. She is married to Andrew Laidlaw although she had been involved with his brother James [p. 67], who has already gone out to Nova Scotia. Andrew, we are told, “was the one that she needed in her circumstances” [p. 55]. What might her circumstances have been? In what ways does Agnes seem to embody the desires and frustrations of women in her time, and possibly in our time?  

3. Why does the old James mention “the curse of Eve” with regard to Agnes [pp. 44-45]? Discuss Munro’s prose in the paragraphs describing Agnes’ childbirth [pp. 46-47]. What is most effective, moving, or realistic about this scene?

4. Though Walter refuses Nettie’s father’s offer of work and in doing so refuses to commit himself to Nettie, in later life “he will find that she is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies.” He imagines her “acquiring a tall and maidenly body, their life together. Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret” [p. 78]. Why does Walter pass up this offer?

5. James Laidlaw has wanted all his life to go to America with his family [p. 62]; why, once he is on the ship, does he lose interest? Why does he become, on the ship, so profoundly and comically a man of Ettrick? What do his letters home [pp. 82-84] tell us about him?

6. Munro writes, “I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention” [p. 84]. Discuss the ways in which factual evidence [pp. 84-87] and imaginative embellishment work together in this story, as well as the effect of this mingling.

7. “Illinois”
Andrew muses on what it was in America that had suited his brother Will and also possibly contributed to his early death: “there was something about all this rushing away, losing 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” [p. 110].  Does the collection draw distinctions between those who remain attached to family, even in a new land, and those who are more eager to cut their ties?

8. “The Wilds of Morris Township”
The Laidlaws who settled in Blyth, Ontario—including Munro’s great-grandfather Thomas—lived seemingly joyless lives: “without any pressure from the community, or their religion …they had constructed a life for themselves that was monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence” [p. 118]. Munro’s father marveled at the change, in a generation, from adventurous emigrants to cautious settlers: “To think what their ancestors did …To pick up and cross the ocean.  What was it squashed their spirits?  So soon” [p. 126]. What might be possible answers to this question?  

9. “Working for a Living”
Foundering late one night in a snowdrift as he walked home from work, a father thought only about his failures: about the fact that he would die in debt, about his invalid wife and the children he would leave behind. On hearing this, his daughter wondered, “didn’t he struggle for his own self? I meant, was his life now something only other people had a use for?” [p. 166]. What does this incident tell us the realities of adulthood, and about the daughter’s ambition and her sense of self-importance?

10. In what details does this story show how life’s economic difficulties diminish people? Does the father seem somehow heroic in the face of his disappointments? What becomes of the mother’s early entrepreneurial talents? How do these people come to terms with their disappointments and continue to face the future?

11. “Fathers”
Bunt Newcombe is so brutal with his wife and children that his daughter Dahlia speaks constantly of her desire to kill him. The narrator says that now such a family “might be looked on with concern and compassion. These people need help.” But in that time and place, such misfortunes were taken at face value: “It was simple destiny and there was nothing to be done about it” [p. 175]. The narrator, however, is also sometimes beaten by her father: “I felt as if it must be my very self that they were after, and in a way I think it was. The self-important disputatious part of my self that had to be beaten out of me” [p. 195]. What does this story tell us about the expectations of the world in which Munro grew up, and about how she managed to survive it with what she would need to become a writer?

12. “Lying Under the Apple Tree”
Since the story is told long after the events narrated, an older woman is narrating the experience of her younger self. What effect does this have on the reader’s understanding of the girl’s sexuality? Would the girl have had the words to express what she was feeling at the time? Does the girl’s desire come through more clearly in the words of an older woman? Think about Munro’s perspectives, throughout the collection, on sexuality and desire as experienced by women.

13. What are the signs that the Craik family is slightly lower down on the social scale—or at least on the scale of social striving—than the narrator’s own family?  What does she mean in saying, “I was deceiving this family and my own, I was at this table under false pretenses” [p. 218]?  How surprising is the story’s ending, in which the narrator discovers that Russell is Miriam McAlpin’s lover?

14. “Hired Girl”
As with “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” this story explores the experience of learning about one’s place in the hierarchy of social class. The hired girl, noticing the difference between the Montjoys’ kitchen and her own family’s, thinks, “it seemed as if I had to protect it from contempt—as if I had to protect a whole precious and intimate though hardly pleasant way of life from contempt” [p. 240]. Given this feeling, how does the girl handle herself in the presence of the family she works for?  What is she ashamed of?

15. “The Ticket”
This is a story about leaving home, and about how marriage often was, for women, the ticket out. Yet Aunt Charlie suggests, intuiting the girl’s true feelings, that the man she has chosen might not be “just the right ticket for you” [p. 283]. Discuss how this urgent communication between the older woman and the bride-to-be is handled in the narrative. What details make the end of the story so effective?

16. “Home”
The narrator goes back to visit the house where she grew up, which has been modernized by her father and stepmother: “So it seems that this peculiar house—the kitchen part of it built in the eighteen-sixties—can be dissolved, in a way, and lost, inside an ordinary comfortable house of the present time” [p. 289]. How does the story serve to lay bare again the life within the house, which the narrator calls “a poor man’s house, a house where people have lived close to the bone for over a hundred years” [pp. 289-90]?

17. When her father says, “I know how you loved this place,” the daughter thinks , “And I don’t tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here—some self that I have finished with, and none too soon” [p. 290]. How has the daughter’s self-love helped her to escape from the life she might have had, had she stayed close to home?

18. “What Do You Want to Know For?”
What is the connection between the major elements in this story—the mysterious crypt, the regional landscape and its history, and the lump in the narrator’s breast? What is the significance of the lamp sealed inside the vault, and Mrs. Mannerow’s comment upon it: “Nobody knows why they did it. They just did” [p. 339]?

19. “Messenger”
Munro writes in her epilogue, “We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life” [p. 347]. What is the overall effect of these stories, and how do they make you think about your own family’s history and your place in it?

20. On The View from Castle Rock
Discuss Munro’s decision to create a collection of stories from her own and her family’s history. She writes in her foreword, “These are stories. You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. The part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative”. How and why is this approach interesting? Do these stories, in any substantive way, differ from those in Munro’s earlier collections?

Suggested Readings

Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever; Charles Baxter, Harmony of the World; A. S. Byatt, A Biographer’s Tale; James Hogg, Confessions of a Justified Sinner; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Claire Keegan, Walk the Blue Fields; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; Alastair MacLeod, Island; John McGahern, Beside the Lake; Edna O’Brien, A Fanatic Heart; Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries.

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