Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canadian author Alice Munro sits for an interview in Victoria on Dec. 10, 2013.Chad Hipolito/The Associated Press

In Stockholm for Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize in literature, her long-time publisher, editor and friend Douglas Gibson mingled with the Swedes. Ms. Munro could not attend due to her health. At a public reading, Mr. Gibson’s wife, Jane Brenneman Gibson, recalls asking a young woman what she liked about Ms. Munro’s writing.

“She makes me wonder – how does she know how I feel?” the Swede answered.

How many of us have had that thought reading Ms. Munro’s stories? How does she know?

We didn’t have to live in small-town Ontario or British Columbia, or even Canada, to find that recognition in her pages. Nor did we have to be of a certain age, or gender. “I read every word she ever wrote,” David Sedaris told a Vancouver audience Tuesday night, after learning of her death. “I worshipped her.”

Mr. Sedaris – like Ms. Munro, a world-famous staple of The New Yorker – joked onstage that her stories, with their “little towns,” were like “a great commercial for Canada.” Although he added: “I was always so glad I didn’t live there.”

Ha. I pictured Mr. Sedaris – who famously likes to walk great distances – getting his steps in around Goderich, Ont., or the Ottawa Valley.

It was a thrill, wasn’t it: To read Ms. Munro’s stories and recognize the places in them? A marriage proposal in Port Stanley, Ont., in The Bear Came Over the Mountain. A conversation in the Vancouver Art Gallery gift shop in Soon. In The Children Stay, a woman leaves her husband for her lover in Campbell River, B.C., having earlier imagined herself an urban person “who lived in the glare of an important dream.”

This literary geography was especially thrilling to me as a younger person, when most of my reading material came from elsewhere. Wow, Toronto General Hospital – I’ve been there! Avenue Road – I’m there all the time! (I now imagine international readers thinking: what kind of name is that for a street?)

Alice Munro, master of short stories, wove intense tales of human drama from small-town life

These stories may have been set in Canada, but Ms. Munro’s characters were universal. What a thrill it was to recognize ourselves in them.

“Canada’s very own Chekov,” Man Booker Prize-winning Canadian novelist Yann Martel told me in an e-mail on Tuesday.

As The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman wrote this week, “What Munro did was not so much write about women as write from inside them.”

I pulled my Munro books from their shelves on Tuesday, the gaps in my IKEA Billy bookcases a testament to how her writing has filled me up over the years.

In my copy of Dear Life, her final collection, I found a bookmark: a faded brown Canadian Tire coupon worth 50 cents, marking the middle of Amundsen, a story that has haunted me since I first read it in 2012. A woman arrives to teach at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Amundsen, Ont., during the Second World War and is wooed by the school doctor: “At first he talked to me just in the way an older man would do. A preoccupied future employer.” So piercing a description, constructed with so few words.

The story doesn’t end well. Or does it?

What was it about Amundsen, with its heartbreaking scene outside a Huntsville, Ont., hardware store, that caused me to mark it with my Canadian Tire money? Was my younger self trying to prepare my future self for abandonment and heartbreak? And let her know that she would continue on and have a different life from the one she was heading toward, and that she – I – would be okay?

It is amazing how a story can stick with you, guide you, keep you company in your loneliest and lowest of moments, help you see yourself. That was Ms. Munro’s talent, nearly universally acknowledged. (I did find a few one-star ratings on Goodreads; one reader declared that she was a much happier person before she attempted to read Ms. Munro’s “pseudo-intellectual fiction.” Just in case you were wondering about the usefulness of Goodreads.)

Alice Munro is gone, but her lives of girls and women continue

There was another story Mr. Gibson told me about Ms. Munro, out in the world.

They were in Dublin, where she was about to be presented with the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for work that was “practically perfect,” as juror Jane Smiley put it. “The literary greats of Europe were standing around, chatting excitedly,” Mr. Gibson recalled. “Alice was sitting off quietly by herself. I asked: ‘Why aren’t you out there mingling before you get this great prize?’ The woman from Huron County said, darkly: ‘It might change their minds.’”

How is it possible that the great Alice Munro could suffer from imposter syndrome?

Ms. Munro, revered by the international greats, remained rooted in the real world – and in human feelings, which she expressed with vivid exactness. “The glare of an important dream.” What a phrase.

The lives of girls and women – and everyone else’s – are important and dreamy and dreary. Ms. Munro shined a light on our interiority, our open secrets, exquisitely illuminating the journey through this dear life. Her stories, without question, will transcend hers.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe