Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: Dear Life by Alice Munro

The stories in this book are my first experience with reading Alice Munro. The first story I read in this collection was "Train." It was not the first story in the book, the title just caught my attention. It was the longest story in this collection, about 40 pages. 

Not quite sure why she chose that title. The story begins and ends on a train, but most of the story is in between the train rides. The story held my interest but when I got to the end, I was not sure what the point was. I ended up reading it two more times.

"Train" is the story of a man's life after his return to Canada following World War II, covering about the next 20 years of his life.  The next stop on the train is his home town but he obviously doesn't want to go there because he jumps off the train and walks the other direction towards a nearby town. He is offered a meal by a woman living alone on a farm that has seen better days. She doesn't even have a car but gets around with a horse and buggy. He ends up staying with her for several years and fixing up the place and taking odd jobs in town when available. Eventually he does move on to another area, lucks into a new job, and with each move we learn a little more about him. Some reviewers found this story to be sad but I did not have that reaction.

After reading "Train," I began reading from the beginning of the book. The next two stories I read, "To Reach Japan" and "Amundsen," also feature train journeys. I wonder if this is a common theme in Munro's stories. "Amundsen" was also set in a TB Sanatorium, which was very interesting. Most (all?) of the stories that I read so far are set in the 1950s.

Two stories ("Pride" and "Corrie") have characters with physical disabilities and the story illustrates ways they cope with the world. "Corrie," about a woman who is lame due to having polio, was very interesting, and was probably my second favorite in the book. I happened upon a very interesting post about the fact that this story has three different endings in various places they were published (first in the New Yorker, later in The PEN/O. Henry Awards anthology and then in Dear Life). The three different endings for "Corrie" are discussed at this post on the Reading the Short Story blog.

I have now read 8 stories out of the 14 in the book. Some of the stories were more appealing than others, but every one of them was a worthwhile read. My comments on the stories in the book are related to those 8 stories.

In general, the stories sometimes seemed fairly bland and flat on a first read, but as I got used to the stories, I acclimated to Munro's style. Some of them have ambiguous or disappointing endings, but I liked reading them anyway. They all have interesting, if very different, characters and the main characters are usually very well developed. The people are often misfits, not fitting into "normal" society. Often the stories are about relationships.

A small thing, but I like that Munro mentions the town of Kitchener in several stories. It made the setting of the stories in small-town Canada feel real to me.  I know nothing about Kitchener but it is the town that Margaret Millar was born and raised in. Her husband, Ken Millar (AKA Ross Macdonald) was also raised there although he was born in the US.

That is enough for now. The stories I read are:

  • "To Reach Japan"
  • "Amundsen"
  • "Leaving Maverley"
  • "Gravel"
  • "Haven"
  • "Pride"
  • "Corrie" 
  • "Train "


NancyElin said...

Oh...I read this book 5 years ago...I knew it sounded
familiar when I was reading your review!
The first 3 stories were the best reads.
My favorite was 'Corrie'.
The last 4 stories were autobiographical.....
I liked her fictional stories better.

Margot Kinberg said...

Alice Munro is such a talented writer, Tracy. I have to admit, I've not read this collection, but I'm so glad you enjoyed it, even if some stories appealed to you more than others did.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love all of her stories--even though as you found, it's sometimes hard to find her point. But she creates a world. I live a couple of hours from Kitchener and where many of her stories are set. Later, she moves from Ontario to the west coast of Canada. My favorite story is The Bear Came Over the Mountain' which was made into a movie Away From Her, starring Julie Christie.

Diane Kelley said...

I've read Alice Munro's stories for years. Great writer!

TracyK said...

Nancy, "Corrie" was a very good story. I only have two stories plus the 4 autobiographical stories left to read. I found two other books of her short stories at the annual book sale this year. I will look for more of them next year.

TracyK said...

Margot, I was looking Alice Munro on Wikipedia today and there are so many collections of her stories. That will keep me busy for a while.

TracyK said...

Patti, What I wanted to say in my post (and did not do very well) was that I liked reading all the stories, no matter how unusual they were, and even if I could not get them. I am sure several of them would improve over multiple readings.

I envy you living so close to Canada but I would not like the weather up there. Very interesting about the movie Away From Her, based on one of Munro's stories. I can easily see that her stories could inspire movies.

TracyK said...

Diane, thanks for commenting. I am glad I finally read some stories by Munro. I have two more collections to read, then I will have to look for more.

Cath said...

I thought I'd read something by Alice Munro and checked my blog, but no I haven't. Thinking of something or someone else clearly. I do own one one short story in a Christmas collection, the story is called The Turkey Season so I'll make sure I read that to sample her writing.

TracyK said...

Cath, These short stories are very different from most I have read, and at first I was a bit daunted by them, but as you can tell I changed my mind. Let me know what you think of The Turkey Season.

Cath said...

I will do that thing happily. I was thinking I might have a sort of Christmas 'short story' December. Rather than trying to read a whole volume by one author or editor, just pick odd stories that appeal from the various Christmas collections I have, the ones that appeal etc. It just sounds like fun somehow.

TracyK said...

Cath, that is a great idea. I had forgotten that I bought one huge book of Christmas stories earlier in the year, and have a couple of unfinished books of Christmas stories on the shelves. I will check out some of those too.

CLM said...

Christmas short stories sound like a great idea. Someone gave me a Christmas mystery and I need to put it somewhere I'll remember next month. Oh yes, on my TBR cart which I have neglected lately.

I have never read Alice Munro but I like the sound of these stories. I don't remember hearing about the editorial process of short stories but I assume if the author is alive there is discussion with the editor about the order of the stories.

With regard to the cover, the editor would likely look for something that can be illustrated. I like this cover and was thinking that in the 50s, many (but not all?) girls climbing a tree would indeed be wearing a dress. I did not wear pants all that often in the 60s and recall not being happy on the days when I wore my Girl Scout uniform to school (which we did because we walked to meetings after school) and gym required us to do something that would have showed our underwear. In the 70s, I think they came up with a Girl School uniform that was pants and a shirt, but I will have to ask my friend Deb who is a scouting expert and still takes a troop camping at 70.

Kitchener is also known for its junior hockey team with many young players going on to careers in the NHL. One of my favorites was Larry Robinson who starred for the Montreal Canadiens.

TracyK said...

Constance, reading Christmas stories in December is very appealing. I usually try to read at least one mystery novel set at Christmas every year, but if I do that this year it will be Jane Haddam's first Gregor Demarkian mystery, Not a Creature Was Stirring, which I have already read 2 or 3 times.

I like this cover too, but I have no idea which story it might illustrate. I do still have 6 stories to read though. The original cover was very different and very striking, although I don't know what it was illustrating either.

I was a child in the 50s, and I definitely would have been wearing shorts or pants outside, but wasn't much of a climber. Wearing pants were an issue for me in the late 60s when I was in college and women could not walk on campus in pants. If we were walking to the post office or such, we would wear shorts underneath a raincoat, weather permitting.

Very interesting about the junior hockey team in Kitchener. In the 90s when I was watching basketball games, I would also sometimes watch hockey games (and I collected trading cards for both sports).

CLM said...

My mother's college friends also complained about not being allowed to wear pants when they were cycling to class (they were allowed in the dorm but not outside it). The women's dorms were farther away from the classrooms and libraries than the men's dorms so many had bicycles. In the early 70s, when everything went coed they put in a shuttle bus so the men didn't have to walk! Although it was often faster to walk than to wait for the bus.

TracyK said...

That is funny, Constance. I went to college from 1966-67, then left for one and a half years and worked, then returned in 1969, returning to the same dorm. By 1969, a lot of restrictions had been lifted, included not being able to wear pants outside of the dorm. You could get a key to get back in the dorm after 12:00 p.m. and I think you could even stay out overnight. Amazing! Fun memories.