15 Reader Response

The remembering of one’s youth

Douglas Thompson

'Curiouser and curiouser!'
“‘Curiouser and curiouser!'” by LaserGuided is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In Dear Life by Alice Munro, the author, eighty-two years old at the time of writing, tells a personal reflection of her upbringing. She tells us of her childhood home, the structure in which her father and mother raised their children and kept their home. She writes of the children and neighbors she grew up with, and some of her mother’s retellings of strange experiences with their neighbors. Alice Munro retells these moments in an attempt to explore not only her upbringing, but an exploration of human emotions and behaviors of people in that time. Munro tells what ought to be mundane and even unimportant stories, but through her lens shares with us the complexity and reason behind her holding onto these tales all of her life. Through her realistic retelling of childhood characters, she portrays the rawness of exploration, curiosity, happiness, loss, and sadness.

Upon my first reading, I felt this retelling of Munro’s upbringing and of her neighbor Mrs. Netterfield were a drab retelling of a time long-since passed. Upon a second reading and deeper analysis, I realized that Munro has a unique ability to evoke empathy and understanding in her readers; through run-on sentences and overshared details of streets and locations, Munro actually does well to make us feel what she did as a young child. Munro’s exploration of human emotions reminds us of the commonality of these shared experiences. We may not have lived her exact experiences, but in her writing, she intends to connect us to the characters and make us reflect on our own emotional journeys. Through her skilled storytelling, Munro allows us as the audience to examine our own emotions and reflect on our own tales and experiences.

In ‘A Childhood Visitation’ several key themes are explored. One of the prominent themes is the fragility of human life and the focus on one’s ability to maintain and overcome despite these hardships.  Munro examines the unpredictability of life and showcases how ordinary, everyday moments can unexpectedly shape a person’s existence. For example, we see her reflect on the beatings she used to receive when she talked back to her parents. One day, when her father begins to earn a decent living, the dining room is rearranged. Alice reflects, “That change comforted me in some unexamined way, because my father’s beatings had taken place in the dining room, with me wanting to die for the misery and shame of it all. And now it was as if their whole setting were gone.” (Munro) As happens in life, sometimes the miseries we experience are gone, the scars covered, and it’s as if it never happened. The location is gone, but this strong author in her elder years still carries her woes despite the lack of immediate visibility of her baggage or hurt.

She explains that prostitutes in her area earned themselves diseases due to their lifestyles. In reflecting on the illness they’ve experienced, she halts the paragraph to write one sentence in its own line: “The wages of sin is death.”  (Munro) Authors! Alice Munro is no exception to the pitfall of excellence. Authors always take the next direction, leaping into the chasm of emotion as they reflect on personal experience. This dramatic unease is needlessly injected into an otherwise dry personal anecdote or story. I personally did not expect the writing to be pushed into this puritanical route, however.

Munro explores the theme of memory and its power to influence our perceptions of the past and present. The collection delves into the unreliable nature of memory, highlighting how our recollections can be selective and subjective. Munro’s exploration of these key themes allows readers to reflect on their own lives and question the profound impact that seemingly small moments and relationships can have on one’s existence. She works to fit a description of a bygone time into her writing.

This period shaped her as a person, and after all this time she still reflects on certain painful moments. When speaking of her father, she says: “I believe he was glad to get away, even to do this hard and risky work. To get out of the house and into the company of other men who had problems but made the best of things.” (Munro) pieces like these serve as important artifacts not only of the author’s life but of a time in history when these things were commonplace. Things have changed to a noticeable degree, but there is much less of this self-appointed misery for the purpose of escape. Instead, burdened by the ease of living, we find ourselves apathetic to ourselves and others. These people lived and worked hard lives, never feeling woeful or self-pitying.

Alice Munro was once interviewed about her early childhood memories and why it’s important to review them. She said: “I think that’s particularly true probably of early childhood memories. And there’s always an attempt being made to work through them. But what does “work through” mean? It means that they don’t hurt anymore? That you’ve thought them through and have what you think is a fair idea of what was going on? But you never write about that. You have children. When they write their story of their childhood, it’s still going to be just their story, and the “you” in it is going to be a “you” that you maybe wouldn’t recognize. And this is why I think you have to acknowledge that the story that makes the most honorable effort is still not going to get at everybody’s truth. But the effort is worthy.” (Awano) With a bootstrap attitude that befits her generation, and the mindset of taking life on headstrong, Alice Munro paints quite the picture of her adolescence.

Her bootstrap attitude is on display when she finishes this short story with a note about her mother when she was elderly and confused. It seems Alice is not sure what to make of her mother’s stories, as her lucidity and the validity of her mother’s claims about the neighbor, Mrs. Netterfield appear disjointed. She almost offhandedly mentions in the final chapters that her dying mother “got out of the hospital somehow, at night, and wandered around town until someone who didn’t know her at all spotted her and took her in. If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true.” (Munro) This is an excellent example of how her writing curiously fits the human condition. This is a sad tale, but mostly benign. This does happen, and hers is not the only tale of an elderly family member wandering off. Alice Munro seems to believe this is a rare occurrence, a dreadful thing. Indeed, it is, but in her writing there appears to be a malaise and also a head-shaking travesty to it all. Such is the experience of these folks from older generations.

Munro was an author who both celebrated herself, and her experiences and memories, yet hated to be made into a celebrity for them. In fact, sometime in the 70s she “made a policy of refusing prizes that didn’t specifically honor the quality of her fiction. She didn’t feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity.” (Valdes) Munro in her writing and in her personal life demonstrates that she is clearly an experienced and worldly author. The narrative structure of this story and her point of view keep readers engaged throughout the story, even as she tells the sometime simplistic details of her life and her high school. However, the short story also has weaknesses. The narrative can occasionally become disjointed, as Munro belabors points and carries the reader between scenes, swinging from one moment to the other using run-on sentences. This may confuse some readers and detract from the overall cohesiveness of the story. Additionally, while Munro’s writing style is generally immersive and evocative, it can at times become overly verbose, which may alienate some readers.

I, as a reader, feel her writing style is frantic, quick paced and sometimes odd in its wording and its phrasing. It feels like the rushed, unfiltered dialogue of someone speaking to you. “Then there was a slight hollow, a couple of rickety houses that got flooded every spring, but that people–different people–always came and lived in anyway.” (Munro) The grammar and pacing of this sentence feels all wrong. When spoken aloud it works perfectly, but in written form it feels like a clunky transcript. This woman is truly spinning a tale as she remembers it- step by needless step.

Overall, this short story is a compelling and curious tale, highlighting the strengths of Munro’s ability to delve into the complexities of human emotions and create a strong connection with readers. While it is not without its weaknesses, particularly in terms of narrative structure and occasional verbosity, the strengths of the book outweigh its weaknesses, making it a worthwhile read for those seeking a personal anecdote from an accomplished actor about young adulthood in the mid-1900s.

As a reader, ‘A Childhood Visitation’ left a curious impression on me. The short tale offered a fair exploration of the human experience and shared with us a time period and several details that clearly lasted long and remained important in the mind of this author. I found the writing to be familiar and human, which prompted me to reflect on the profound moments that shape my own life and the enduring power of memory.

In conclusion, “Dear Life” stands as a testament to Alice Munro’s extraordinary talent as a storyteller, showcasing her ability to illuminate the profound within the ordinary. Munro invites readers to contemplate the intricacies of human experience and the power of memory. To reflect on one’s life is to be aged and young again.

Works Cited

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview With Alice Munro. (Cover Story).” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 89, no. 2, Spring 2013, pp. 180–84. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=87119387&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Munro, Alice. “A Childhood Visitation.” EBSCO Host, 19 Sept. 2011, web-s-ebscohost-com.cwi.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=85b589de-fa4b-4d7a-8911-a84e91d12222%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=65511674&db=f5h. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

Valdes, Marcela. “Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me: A Literary History of Alice Munro.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 82, no. 3, Summer 2006, pp. 82–90. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=21373060&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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