What is Canadian Identity? Who defines it? Who records it? Who writes it?
To many, this is the job of writers, historians, artists. And, for many years, this honor has fell to the first Canadian female to win the Nobel Literature prize, the three-time winner of Governor General’s prize for literature, a knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters. A poor farm girl from rural Ontario, a starving university student, a housewife, a mother, a divorcee, and then, a world famous author. Alice Munro.
In Writing Her Lives, by Robert Thacker, we learn about of one of the powerhouses of Canadian Fiction and short story writing. Through Munro’s stories, she proved that there was no “right way” to be a Canadian author, and she defined Canadian Literature at a crucial turning point in the publishing world. Her stories detailed small town Canadian life in a brutal, messy style, the epitome of Southern Ontario Gothic. Her stories chronicled, spoke, and defined Canadian literature, and in that, Canadian identity.
The year was 1970. Paranoia and fear ran rampant in the Canadian publishing community. Ryerson Press, a cornerstone of Canadian publishing, had just been bought by McGraw Hill, an American firm. Would this move swallow Canadian authors, remove their culture and patriotism, assimilate our nation into American ideals and values? What was needed a change, a group of authors to shepherd Canada into a new golden age of literature, where Canadian values and Canadian lives, chronicled in artfully crafted stories, would reach not just Canadian audiences, but audiences worldwide. The three Margaret’s, as they were called, filled this niche. Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and ironically, not a Margaret, but an Alice: Alice Munro.
Alice Munro grew up poor in the Huron Valley, in a little town called Wingham. Her father was an entrepreneur, a fox farmer that had fallen on hard times, and her mother was a former teacher turned housewife. She grew up poor, and no one had any expectations for her. She won a scholarship to Western Ontario University for two years, and after the money ran out, she married James Munro, and they moved to Vancouver, far, far away from Alice’s familiar Ontario. She never had much time for writing, as she raised four young daughters. She always felt out of place, constrained by her role as a housewife and mother, an unfamiliar setting where she lived yet never felt at home.
She published sporadically, but never reached her potential. She was fighting constantly with her husband, and was never content with the life everyone wanted for, a life trapped in the constraints of domesticity and motherhood. It was time for her to break the mold. Divorce was only just beginning to be accepted, along with self-sufficient women. Taking a leap of faith, Alice was both of these: adapting to difficult conditions and circumstances, a true Canadian. She became a writer-in-residence, a professor, taking odd jobs to provide for herself and her daughters, all the while churning out stories to become a Canadian literary powerhouse. Alice Munro used her strength, determination, and skill to reach the status of a legendary author, upsetting norms and proving that a women could make it big.
See, Alice Munro was no ordinary author. Her work unexpectedly explored the human condition through characters that are quintessential to everyday life: a mother returning home after a death of a loved one, a teenaged girl after a school dance, a housewife longing for more. Alice Munro’s stories were packed full of detail, ordinary and simple people and places and events that forced a reckoning in the lives of the characters. Each story says something about broader social norms, about the people and places that inhabit everyday life, that inhabit Canada. Alice Munro defines and redefines Canadian Identity through provocative works of fiction, and while the stories are not autobiographical, they are personal, showing her unique insight into the function of society and it’s norms at a time when Canada was beginning to redefine itself.