Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The View from Castle Rock

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The View from Castle Rock

Stories

by Alice Munro

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2006, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 368 pages

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Alice Munro was born in 1931 in Wingham, a small town in southwestern Ontario, to a family of small farmers. She began writing stories at the age of 12. She won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario and while there published several short stories in the student literary magazine. She left before graduating, some sources say this was because she ran out of money, others say it was to get married. She married another student, James Munro, and they raised three daughters and for several years ran a bookshop in Victoria. Later they divorced and she married Gerald Fremlin, a geographer. The Fremlins divide their time between Clinton, Ontario, not far from Munro's hometown of Wingham, and Comox, British Columbia.

Munro says that the turning point for her writing came in 1959 when she wrote "The Peace of Utrecht", a story about her mother becoming ill from Parkinson's when Munro was 12. Exploring her personal pain helped her develop a deeper, more reflective style in her writing. Her first collection, Dances of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 when she was 37.

In a 2001 interview Munro commented on how age has changed her perspective: "When I was thirty, if I'd tried to write about someone dying of cancer, I would have been overwhelmed by the tragedy of it. Just growing older has an effect. It's the simple experience of where I am in life."


Background to The View From Castle Rock
In her foreword Munro explains that she was "lucky, in that every generation of [her] family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters and detailed recollections." One such is James Laidlaw who wrote a lengthy letter from his new home in Canada to one of his grown children who stayed behind and, much to his annoyance, found that the letter had been published in full in Blackwood's Magazine (a literary magazine published by the Blackwood family from 1817 to 1980). Other relatives kept journals and Munro's father wrote parts of a memoir and a novel.

The book title is a reference to the hill on which Edinburgh Castle sits in the south of Scotland. Castle Rock is the monumental remains of an ancient volcano that is protected on three sides by virtually sheer cliffs. I know this first hand as we spent a few lovely days in Scotland a few summers ago and, of course, visited Edinburgh Castle. Approaching from the wrong side and thinking we could find a short cut to avoid walking the path that circles the base of the rock, we started to climb. An hour later, having had much of my life flash past me at various moments as I crawled on hands and knees up the extraordinarily steep slope while the children cantered ahead like little goats, we found our way back down and on to the correct path - and what we'd tried to climb wasn't even the steep side!

In the story, young Andrew's father takes him to see America from the top of Castle Rock. No doubt, it goes without saying that it is never possible to see America from any part of Scotland. The two are separated by a few thousand miles and about 50° of latitude!

This article was originally published in December 2006, and has been updated for the January 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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