Lives of Mothers & Daughters
Growing Up with Alice Munro
McClelland & Stewart Ltd. ($27.95)
by Meleah Maynard
When Sheila Munro was growing up, she and her younger sister Jenny would sit on the living room floor and watch television while their mother, Canadian author Alice Munro, sat in a chair behind them reading a book. She was with them, but she wasn't with them. It was a feeling the girls would have throughout their childhood. While their father was detached in his own way, he did embrace his role in the family. He expressed great pride and interest in things like choosing and decorating the house they lived in and playing with his children when he got home from work. Their mother never seemed to care about such things. Sure, she did the laundry, waited on her kids when they were sick, and cooked dinner just like other moms did. But it was always clear that what she really wanted to be doing was writing at the little desk in the corner of her bedroom.
"She was like the young mother in [the well-known Alice Munro story] Miles City Montana, who sees herself as a detached observer," Sheila Munro writes, before quoting the passage in that story where she thinks her mother could just as well have been describing herself.
"In my house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide…so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to. But on trips there was no difficulty. I could be talking to Andrew, talking to the children and looking at whatever they wanted me to look at…and all the time these bits and pieces would be flying together inside me. The essential composition would be achieved. This made me hopeful and lighthearted. It was being a watcher that did it. A watcher, not a keeper." (p.51)
A self-described weird little kid, Alice Munro never went in for ordinary things. She didn't ride bikes or roller skate. She didn't have friends to speak of. She was writing and planning a lengthy historical novel by the time she was eleven. Her parents were poor and she often argued violently with her mother, who died of a form of Parkinson's disease when Munro was a teenager.
Alice Munro had not especially desired a husband or children. But there were certain things young women did in the 1950s and in this respect, Munro followed the norm. Fighting to keep her writing under wraps in order to appear as normal as possible, she always left her typewriter to answer the door when the neighbor ladies came by unannounced to drink tea and gossip. Her husband expected that much; a demanding man with a volatile temper, Jim Munro liked the fact that his wife was an artist, but only to a point.
In 1997 Alice Munro asked her eldest daughter Sheila to write her biography. Sheila, 42 years old with two children and a sizeable complex about the fact that she wasn't a writer in her own right, didn't immediately jump at the idea. Six months later she decided she would do it, but not as a biography. She proposed writing a book about what it was like growing up as Alice Munro's daughter, noting "For years I had been writing vignettes about my own life, but I could never find any framework into which they would fit; they seemed to be going nowhere, and I was growing more and more frustrated. It occurred to me that perhaps I could use a memoir as a framework."
The idea seemed perfect. All of her life, Sheila had read her mother's stories and seen her family's history played out on paper, as characters reenacted things like the tumultuous relationship her parents navigated for years before finally divorcing, or the time 4-year-old Jenny nearly drowned in a hotel swimming pool on a family vacation. Maybe Sheila believed that telling her mother's story from her perspective as a daughter would help the child whose existence has always been eclipsed by her mother's ethereal presence come into her own.
In the book, however, it soon becomes obvious that the author is still struggling with some complex feelings about her relationship to her mother. At times, it's hard not to feel like we're coldly climbing atop an eager and open-armed Sheila to get a better look at her more interesting mother. But thankfully, this is no get-revenge-on-mom book. Sheila Munro clearly loves and respects her mother. She's as interested in what makes Alice Munro tick as we are, and that's why we aren't really interested in her. Sheila saves the rush of feelings of jealousy and inadequacy until the last few pages of the book: "She is the gold standard by which everything else is measured, to whom everyone else is compared," she writes, "And I can understand why. I do not disagree. It's just that it makes her into an icon and I don't suppose anyone wants their mother, or their father for that matter, to become an icon. What is there to do with an icon besides worshipping it, or ignoring it, or smashing it to pieces?"
By writing this book, Sheila Munro has answered that question for herself: she's trying to live with an icon the best way she can. Alice Munro fans will have a hard time putting this memoir down. Yet there is so much more we'd like to know about this woman who made headlines in the Canadian papers in the 1960s-"Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories."