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Author Alice Munro will be the toast of the book world Tuesday when her daughter Jenny receives the Nobel Prize in literature on her behalf in Stockholm. (CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Author Alice Munro will be the toast of the book world Tuesday when her daughter Jenny receives the Nobel Prize in literature on her behalf in Stockholm. (CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jane Urquhart

Without Alice Munro’s spectacular work, many books would not have been written Add to ...

By 1988 Alice Munro had published six collections of short stories. She had won three Governor-General’s Awards, a Canadian Bookseller’s Award and the Marian Engel Prize. And she had been under contract with The New Yorker for at least a decade. (In tens of thousands of households, my own included, domestic disputes had been erupting for years concerning which member of the family would be the first to get their hands on the magazine whenever it featured one of her stories.)

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Her work had been the subject of countless articles, reviews and academic investigations. And the work itself, wherever it was encountered, moved and changed her readers in a spectrum of ways; emotionally, philosophically, and often, in the broad sense of the term, spiritually. It altered the way we thought about writing, even what should be written about. We never emerged from an Alice Munro story as quite the same person we had been stepping in. We were, oddly, both more conscious and less certain. We were more intimate with our own foibles and less sure of our own high-mindedness. She had already done what only the greatest of writers can do. She had made us more generous and less judgmental. In short, she had already shone her beautiful ruthless light on our humanness, had made us more aware of – and fascinated by – that light, as well as the darkness it illuminated. And there would be nine more books to come.

By 1988 I was the unknown author of one novel, published a year or two earlier. I was living in an ordinary Southwestern Ontario village with my family. And yet this village had already experienced a miracle. Its post office had received a letter, addressed to me, a letter from Alice Munro saying that she would like to visit. If I would pick her up when the bus from Clinton pulled into New Hamburg on a particular morning, she wrote, we could spend the day together.

Not a moment of that day, or the many other days with Alice Munro that have followed, will ever leave my memory. But one thing she said struck me as particularly profound. Our parents, our grandparents couldn’t have done this, she told me. They simply could not have written books. Not that they wouldn’t have had the ability – they may or may not have had that – but they simply wouldn’t have had the opportunity. She was referring, of course, to our rural forebears, an ancestry that we shared. She was referring to people whose hours were filled with physical labour, men and women who one way or another had carved their lives out of the land. This would be true, of course, and continues to be true for many others, urban or rural, men and women who were factory workers, or who ran shops, and any number of first- or second-generation immigrants in this country. But I was young enough at the time, and selfish enough, not to have thought of this. Once again, it was Alice Munro’s sense of humanity that made me aware.

Then she told me about her father’s book. Late in his life, Robert Laidlaw had written, and had subsequently published, The McGregors: A Novel of an Ontario Pioneer Family, a fictional account of his own family’s efforts to establish themselves in the then uncharted territory of Huron County. The writing in this book, as I would come to know, is vivid and compelling, and his attention to the historical detail of daily life is admirable. His daughter, speaking about this that morning in 1988 at my kitchen table, was visibly moved as she described what her discovery of his talent had meant to her.

We are a country comprised of displaced First Nations people and of immigrants largely forced by necessity and circumstance to depart from distant shores. In spite of the way things currently appear, our artistic excellence has been hard won. But we have been given the gift of the writing of Alice Munro, a genius who loves the kind of life we have lived here. It is no accident that her most recent – and perhaps her last – book is entitled Dear Life, because Alice Munro is a worshipper of all of life: the light and the dark, the past and the present. As she receives the Nobel Prize for literature we should all remember her father’s statement from the preface of his novel. He thanks his daughter, as we all should thank his daughter, for without the example of her spectacular work, without the encouragement of her brilliant attention to us, his book, and many other books, would not, could not have been written.

Jane Urquhart, who edited the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, is also the author of seven novels including The Stone Carvers and Away.

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