In 1997 my mother asked me if I wanted to write her biography," Sheila Munro recalls of the genesis of Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. It's a breathtaking sentence¨what was Alice Munro thinking of? Even for someone with a mother less famous, assuming the role of her biographer would be a devilish task: how possibly to find the necessary distance and objectivity? Harder still when your mother (not to mention the rest of your family) is alive and around to read every word. Moreover, Sheila Munro admits she has struggled with her relationship to her mother. When Grandmother Alice, "the best short-story writer in the western world," takes the baby for a walk so Sheila can get some writing done, she is pained by the irony: "I feel like a fraud. I'm not a real writer."
Yet she responded to her mother's proposition, on her own terms. She wouldn't do a biography, but she could write a memoir. And in Lives of Mothers and Daughters she seems to have found the ideal form for her particular qualifications. What she achieves is neither adulatory hagiography nor retribution, but an absorbing, insightful story anchored in a domesticity recognizable from Alice Munro's fiction. And while we can't know if Sheila Munro got everything right, it feels as if she has.
Alice Munro has always guarded the privacy of her personal life, but her daughter's account confirms the facts as generally known. She was born Alice Laidlaw in a western Ontario farming community, her early life marked by poverty and premature responsibility as her mother slowly succumbed to Parkinson's disease. Alice escaped in 1949 to the University of Western Ontario on a scholarship with the highest marks in Huron County, and at the end of her second year married another student, Jim Munro. At 21 she was pregnant with her first child; she was also establishing her writing career. As a suburban housewife in Vancouver through the Fifties, she was a good-enough mother who did not neglect husband or children for her writing, but like Jane Austen, scribbled away when she could snatch time from housework. She went to school functions and neighbourhood parties and coffee klatches. When her husband opened a bookstore in Victoria in 1963, she worked in it. In the mid-Seventies the Munros divorced and Alice later remarried, to an old university friend, Gerry Fremlin.
Now with young children herself, Sheila Munro is acutely attuned to that stage of her mother's life, as she tried to balance family demands and the imperatives of self. It is this Alice who is most clearly in focus. "Smashingly beautiful," tiny waisted, pointy breasted¨the era's physical ideal¨she could be witty and vivacious as well as bookish and intensely disciplined, a "chameleon" who changed to match her surroundings. Sheila Munro never mentions her mother's contemporary, Sylvia Plath, but there's a temptation to compare Alice to that other beautiful and enormously talented young woman. It's near-impossible to imagine Alice sticking her head in the oven or even causing scenes, although there were plates thrown in anger, and ulcers and panic attacks during a crisis of doubt and stagnation in the late Fifties and early Sixties as Alice tried and abandoned novels. But she was from Presbyterian Ontario, and her solution was to work harder.
Sheila Munro's observations are often sharp and astute, yet they are also generous and carefully non-judgmental. She does not editorialize on how it must have felt for Alice, eldest daughter and her father's support, to be on the far side of the country and too encumbered to return home as her mother was dying. And while Sheila recalls a certain distance from her mother in the early years when she and her sister Jenny were growing up, she also recognizes that the child-rearing standards of those times differed markedly from the empathetic model of today. By the late Sixties the mother-daughter relationship had shifted to greater closeness, with Alice later wondering whether she wasn't too much of a pal and not enough a parent. There are few details of the breakdown of the Munro marriage; Sheila's own loving relationship with her father grew strained during her adolescence and was only partially restored during the years she worked for him in the thriving Munro's Book Store.
The book delves into family history on Jim Munro's side and goes into greater depth with the Laidlaws and Codes on Alice's. The shyness and inarticulateness Sheila struggled against, masked, from what we see in the photographs, by attractiveness and intelligence, is evidently a condition she shares not just with her mother but with many of her Scottish ancestors. Alice's father, Robert Laidlaw, a quiet, self-taught man, posthumously published a novel, The McGregors, in which he recognized what he called "the tragedy of reticent people."
We might have wished for more about Alice Munro's relationships with other writers. Margaret Laurence lived across town from the Munros in Kitsilano; she and Alice discussed "ironing husbands' shirts but never got to know each other well." Audrey Thomas gets a walk-on, but we learn little else about the two writers' friendship. As a child Sheila would have had no interest in such adult contacts. In the same way there is little to be found here about sex. Alice's sotto voce "not enough jelly on the diaphragm," explaining the birth of a third daughter after a gap of eight years, is as intimate a glimpse as we get.
But that's surely as much as we have any need or right to know about any writer, and as much as Alice Munro would have us know. If we do wish to know more, we must turn, as Sheila herself does, to Alice Munro's writing. When she imagines her mother's life, Sheila says, scenes from the stories "roll through my mind like reels from a movie." She cautions herself that fiction, even autobiographical fiction, is not the same as autobiography, "but I can't change it, I can't unravel the truth of my mother's fiction from the reality of what actually happened." The facts are "refracted through the prism of her writing," but the truth is unassailable. Sheila Munro begins her book with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." That single line sums up all that Alice Munro has written, and Lives of Mothers & Daughters too. Truth with slant is inevitably what we get, and we are privileged and enriched to have it. ˛
Maureen Garvie is a writer and editor living in Kingston, Ont..