The theme, the form, and the content are all magnificent. The theme is family, and the form is the interrelated short story. The fictional presentation is in the context of an historical narrative, the first part dealing with the origins, emigration, and settlement of the family. The theme of family is first presented through a story of emigration, and then re-stated, after settlement, through a story of livelihood. The second part is comprised of six variations on the re-stated theme, followed by a third part that is a brief recapitulation that concludes the work. Parts one and two are equal in length.
The two stories on the theme are the two longest in the book; the prelude, two of the settlement stories, and five of the six variations are about the average of 29 pages in length. The equilibrium amongst the smaller and larger units of the form is impeccably well judged.
The title story, the first statement of the theme, “The View from Castle Rock,” is rendered well beyond reproach. “And in front of [the young lad of two, Young James, on board the emigrant sailing ship to Canada] is [his grandfather Old James], the old man with his rumbling voice, insistent but remote, and his blast of bitter breath, his sense of grievance and importance as absolute as the child’s own. His nature hungry, crafty, and oppressive. It is Young James’s first conscious encounter with someone as perfectly self-centred as himself.”
My wife and I were in Edinburgh many years ago, for her father was an Edinburgh child who came with his impoverished family to Canada in the first years of the 20th century; and she and I made our way to Castle Rock, and probably climbed up to it; though I cannot remember it with any certainty, nor can I remember the view. But I understand its abundance of horizon upon the sea that Alice Munro has her story voyage upon.
The power of a great storyteller is her ability to make the story relevant to the reader, no matter whether the relevance is of similar or of dissimilar experience or perspective.
The fifth story, “Working for a Living,” is the compressed restatement of the theme, now set in Ontario. Its reworking of the theme is encapsulated in a description of the father, as he “was edging towards a life he probably could not clearly visualize, since he would know what he didn’t want so much better than what he wanted.” Or, put more plainly by the narrator, “[W]as his life … something only other people had a use for?”
“Hired Girl” is the 8th story, and third variation of the theme. It is set on an island in Georgian Bay. The entire story has undercurrents. There are deft references to the Odyssey, Henry V, and Isak Dinesen. Nausicaa is the place of landing; Montjoy, who informed the King that he is before Agincourt, is the name of the maid’s employer; Mira, who sails from Lamu to Zanzibar, is the story-teller in “The Dreamers” from “Seven Gothic Tales.” The Dinesen book becomes a gift to the hired girl from the husband of the employer, whose wife thinks Nausicaa is a Shakespearian creation. At that point, in the last page of the story, the spelling is changed from Montjoy to Mountjoy. But the use of the Dinesen quotes opens again, for me, a small door back to a world only half-forgotten, as I stand on the shore of this ocean here, and find again Dar-es-Salaam vibrant behind me.
This again is the fineness of the immediacy of the power of the storyteller.
One of the most remarkable attributes of Munro’s writing is her ability to incorporate allusions as well as suggestions of contemporaneous and local mores, almost as still living manifestations, or the colourations of the time, or as the interlinear of memories, into her stories. One that I particularly like is found in the 7th story, “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” with its echoes of Eden, is the unstated but implied reference to the transient cheerfulness of song at wartime.