I’ve not been writing much on here recently as I’ve been researching my family history and it takes up so much time. I only wish my ancestors had left letters and journals like Alice Munro’s did. Her book The View from Castle Rock is an excellent mix of fact and fiction. She has taken what she knows of her family history and woven it into an imagined version of the past. She explains in the Foreword that in every generation of her family there was someone who “went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections.”
The Laidlaws emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1818 and the first part of the book is about their journey across the Atlantic and their early years as settlers. The title of the book comes from a story about Andrew who when he was ten was taken by his father to see the view from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock. His father, who wanted to emigrate to America, told him that the land they could see in the mist was America;
There is where every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.
Of course it was not America and Andrew knew that. But it was years later before he realised that he’d been looking at Fife!
Story follows story as the years pass spanning several generations of the Laidlaw family moving forward to the present generation – Munro herself. I found the second half of the book even better than the first as she tells of her parents and their hard working lives. Her father bred silver foxes and before she became ill her mother made their pelts into scarves to sell to American tourists. Munro then relates stories based on her own life. These are first person stories based on personal material but as she puts it in an
“austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself at the center and wrote about that self as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. … In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.
These are stories.
You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative.
Fact or fiction this is a fascinating book.
It’s also the eighth library book I’ve read this year – for accounts of more library books see J Kaye’s Support Your Library Challenge.