The 12 stories in Castle Rock are as close as Munro has come to turning her family's life into stories. She uses author James Hogg's late 18th-century account of her folk, the Laidlaws, of the Ettrick Valley, south of Edinburgh. She quotes a Laidlaw diary describing the crossing to Canada in 1818, and selections from her father's novel The Macgregors. But the stories she builds around these bits are invented, dramatized; the author wants to call attention not to herself but to human nature. When I use her stepmother's real name instead of the fictional one used in Castle Rock's story Home, Munro gently reminds: "You mean 'Irlma.' "
Under the charm, she can be as hard as Edinburgh's Castle Rock. She's no churchgoer, but having been brought up among Presbyterians, she keeps a version of the Sabbath. Sundays are for drives in the country. "I won't let my husband turn the car radio on," she says. "I don't want to hear the news or even music. It's a distraction."
Stern Presbyterian judgment emerges again and again in her writing, and Castle Rock is probably her most personally confessional book ever. "Cruelty was a thing I could not recognize in myself," she writes in the story Hired Girl. "Something happened that I am ashamed of," she writes in Home, a story about her father's second wife, the working-class Irlma. The story Fathers contains several self-judgments, and a confession to "a shaky arrogance in my nature, something brazen yet cowardly . . ."
She is as tough on herself as any practising Presbyterian. "Oh yes," Munro nods. "I am a stern judge."
She is, however, distressed that some critics have found her to be gloomy. "I don't want to write any more if it just depresses people. My grandmother used to say, 'There's enough misery in the world, Alice, without writing about sad things.' "
In researching Castle Rock, she became deeply intrigued by her ancestors' religion. She had always thought of her Presbyterian background as strictures, prohibitions, bachelors and old maids. Visiting Scotland, and tramping out to the Ettrick churchyard in a cold rain, did little to dispel this. But reading the autobiography of Ettrick's pastor, Rev. Thomas Boston, revealed a different aspect. The preacher loved his beautiful wife, but what Boston really cared about, says Munro, was the blessing of God. "He was Jacob wrestling with his angels, struggling all the time." She adds, revealingly, "He was so enclosed in his faith, he was like an artist." The beautiful Mrs. Boston was bedridden for much of her life. Munro suspects this was not only because the couple had many children, but because, "it is hard being married to a man of faith." As hard as being married to an artist, she adds.
The lives of girls and women are her perennial interest, especially the rebels and misfits. Her own female relatives were always exhorting young Alice by holding up examples of Good Girls. "Very early on I resigned myself to not being the family favourite. Even if I tried I wouldn't be. Too mouthy, too much attitude."
The women of the family, particularly her paternal grandmother, also withheld their approval from Munro's mother, a former school teacher with an entrepreneurial streak. In the Castle Rock story Working for a Living, the mother takes fox pelts from her husband's floundering fox farm and heads off in the Depression to sell them in swank hotels. "My father's mother," writes Munro, "hated what my mother was doing. Peddling. She said that when she thought of American tourists, all she hoped was that none of them came near her." Although Alice-the-narrator is excited to see her mother selling furs in public, she is later repelled. Her mother, she writes, has employed "flattery so adroitly and naturally that you did not even recognize it as flattery. And all for money. I thought such behaviour shameful, as of course my grandmother did."