The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro

view-from-castle-rockI’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.

library-challengeIt’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.

Sunday Salon – Selections

tssbadge1The idea of The Sunday Salon is to imagine we’re in a large reading room discussing the books we’re reading. 

Today is a good day for reading. Yesterday the sun was shining drawing me outside. But today the sky is grey, the light is dull and I’m content to stay indoors and read. So far, however, I haven’t done much reading. I’ve watched Countryfile, tidied up a bit, made soup and done an Alphapuzzle or two. Countryfile was good – John Craven visited Kew Gardens to celebrate its 250th anniversary, there was a fascinating film of salmon migrating to their spawning grounds in the River Severn and what was to me a truly terrifying look at a mountain bike trail in the Lake District, plus lots more.

Back to books, this morning I continued reading two of the books I have on the go – The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro and The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato. Both are proving to be absorbing reads. For links to these books see the sidebar.

My Tuesday Teaser this week was from Alice Munro’s book, with a brief description of the lower Ettrick Valley where her ancestors came from. The Laidlaws emigrated to Canada in 1818 and the account of their voyage across the Atlantic is made more vivid by entries from Walter Laidlaw’s journal. He had brought with him a book to write in and a vial of ink held in a leather pouch strapped to his chest under his shirt. He had the idea from his cousin, James Hogg, the poet and shepherd. It doesn’t sound an easy crossing:

On the afternoon of the 14th a wind came from the North and the ship began to shake as if every board that was in it would fly loose from every other. The buckets overflowed from the people that were sick and vomiting and there was the contents of them slipping all over the deck. All the people were ordered below but many of them crumpled up against the rail and did not care if they were washed over.

Inevitably reading this book has raised more questions for me – just who was James Hogg for one? My own resources are a bit limited but I do have A Book of Scotland, edited by G F Maine. This is an anthology of Scottish prose and verse and comments on Scottish life and character. It contains several poems by James Hogg who was born in 1770 and died in 1835. I also have Scotland: the Blue Guide, which tells me that he was known as the “Ettrick Shepherd” and was a protege of Sir Walter Scott. There is a monument marking his birthplace and his grave is in the churchyard. He and other men of letters including Scott, Carlyle and Stevenson used to meet in Tibbie Shiels inn. This led me on to look at various websites and well away from Munro’s book, but it’s fascinating how one thing in a book leads on to more and yet more. I found this website about Tibbie Shiels Inn – the inn is in the Scottish Borders 48 miles south of Edinburgh overlooking St Mary’s Loch, on the isthmus between St. Mary’s Loch and Loch of the Lowes about halfway between Selkirk and Moffat. Now I’m wondering if it’s possible for us to stop and have a look at it on our way to see my son and family next time we visit them.

electric-shepherdI also found another helpful website Books from Scotland where I came across a book on James Hogg called The Electric Shepherd by Karl Miller. This looks absolutely fascinating. James Hogg taught himself to play the violin as well as writing poetry and the novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and was a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

I don’t want to write about The Madonna of the Almonds today because I’m enjoying it so much I just want to get on with reading it. But I have to mention my reaction to the title. I associate it with paintings of the Madonna and Child, most notably The Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci and in a frivolous vein with”The Fallen Madonna of the Big Boobies” by the fictional painter Van Klomp from ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

And so now after looking at what others are reading in the Sunday Salon it’s back to books before cooking dinner.

Teaser Tuesday

teaser-tuesdayFor this the “official rules” are to select a page at random in the book you’re currently reading and pick two sentences between lines 7 and 12. For today’s teaser my selection isn’t random, nor between the specified lines. I picked these sentences because I liked the references to people connected with the Ettrick Valley in the Scottish borders near Selkirk.

My teaser sentences are from page 5 of Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock:view-from-castle-rock

In the lower Ettrick Valley was Aikwood, the home of Michael Scott, the philospher and wizard of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who appears in Dante’s Inferno. And if that were not enough, William Wallace, the guerilla hero of the Scots, is said to have hidden from the English, and there is a story of Merlin – Merlin – being hunted down and murdered in the old forest, by Ettrick shepherds.

I’ve just started to read this book in which Alice Munro writes a fictionalised version of her family history, starting with her ancestors’ view from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock in the eighteenth century. It’s really a mix of fact and fiction.

To see more teasers look here.