A Family’s Tale
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Editor's Note: Henry Carrigan assumed his new duties this week as editor-in-chief of Northwestern University Press. Due to the stacks of manuscripts piled in his office, the applications and interviews for necessary staff awaiting him and the logistical details involved in moving from one state to another, he is swamped. To give him a bit of a break, we are running his column on Alice Munro's newest book another week. All of BiblioBuffet's contributors have sent Henry well-deserved congratulations, and we hope you, our readers, join us in wishing Henry a happy editorship.
The sometimes mournful, sometimes celebratory, and always tough-minded stories in Munro’s newest collection, The View From Castle Rock (Knopf; $25.95), trace the sprawl of one family, modeled largely on her own, from its native Scotland to Nova Scotia and Illinois.
Drawing on materials she gathered from public libraries and historical registers in Scotland, Munro ignites the materials with the flames of her imagination, creating the stories of generations of hardscrabble men and women who possess the gift of telling and writing stories. She feels especially lucky that “every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections.” The writing life is indeed at the center of the collection as the later stories trace the rise of a young girl’s flowering interest the powerful spell of words arranged on the page. This same young girl narrates the story of her quest to discover her Scottish ancestors.
Munro’s collection divides nicely into two separate but not wholly discrete sections. The first section, “No Advantages,” traces the fortunes of the Laidlaw family in Scotland. In a journey that mirrors a similar one in a later story, the narrator journeys to a graveyard where she finds the grave of her first ancestor William Laidlaw, also known as Will O’Phaup. “This was a man who took on, at least locally, the radiance of myth.” She then stumbles on the graves of Will’s daughter, Margaret Laidlaw Hogg, her husband, Robert Hogg, and their son, the writer, James Hogg. On this rainy day in the cemetery, “past and present lumped together made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined.”
The narrator’s descriptions of her famous ancestors overflow with eloquent hilarity. James Hogg “escaped, into the uneasy role of the naïve comedian, the bumpkin genius, in Edinburgh, and then he escaped, as the author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, into lasting fame.” His mother, Margaret, told off Sir Walter Scott for publishing her verses without her permission: “they were made for singin and no for prentin.” [This is the spelling of the words in the sentence as Munro tries to capture the Scottish dialect.]
The stories in the second section, “Home,” are set in Munro’s more familiar Canadian territory around Lake Huron. In one, “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” a young girl finds her first love only to lose it. In her anger and sadness, she turns to the books in her parents’ bookcase and a new love is revealed to her. “It was in books that I would find, for the next few years, my lovers . . . I had not given up on passion. Passion, indeed, wholehearted, even destructive passion, was what I was after. . . .” In another story, “The Ticket,” the young woman narrator writes stories in her head as she traverses the streets and hills of her country town.
Rich and evocative, Munro’s stories tap deeply our desire to discover both the mysterious and the illuminating corners of our past as well as our yearning for love and acceptance in an often bleak world.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became
Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for
Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief of Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for
PW, as well as the
Washington Post Book World, the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the
Cleveland Plain Dealer, the
Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at