The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro, 2005
The magic trick:
A ‘How-To’ textbook for characterization
It seems at some point Alice Munro got interested in researching her family tree. She even traveled to Scotland to better situate her ancestors’ point of view. And that’s great. Good for her. But then she decided to turn her research into historical fiction? That can’t be a good idea, right?
And yet… of course it’s a good idea. Where this project in almost anyone else’s hands would be a boring bit of self-indulgence via ancestry.com, Munro brings her family tree to life. The characters she’s able to create in this short story are remarkable. They are singular and memorable, yet rich and subtle. Again – as I wrote in the “Bardon Bus” magic trick – I’m not sure I have the faintest idea how she manages to do this. But here goes:
She does a bunch of things at once, of course. With Old James, she uses language. His stories are hilarious. She also uses brief but effective bits of back story. The stuff about Old James and the way he views his five children is especially telling.
With Walter, it’s more action-based. The reader learns about his character through seeing the way he handles different situations and conversations on the ship.
The reader gets to know Agnes mainly through sections of the story that are told from her point of view. Or at least third-person limited omniscient. Interestingly, this doesn’t necessarily make her more sympathetic.
Andrew is an interesting case because we don’t get much in the way of description or point of view from him. We don’t even get much conversation. He appears to be the strong, silent type. Or maybe not. That’s part of the fun with his character. Munro leaves plenty of room for interpretation with him.
Finally, there is Mary: the tragic centerpiece of the cast. Munro uses a little bit of all of the above in painting Mary. As a result, I think it’s fair to say, she is the most richly drawn character.
By story’s end, I felt as if I knew this family very well. So well that I didn’t want the journey or story to be over. I could’ve continued on through a novel about this family. Instead, we get a “And this what happened once they got to North America” epilogue that is equal parts surprising, disappointing and satisfying. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
This is the day of wonders. The land is covered with trees like a head with hair and behind the ship the sun rises, tipping the top trees with light. The sky is clear and shining as a china plate and the water playfully ruffled with wind. Every wisp of fog has gone and the air is full of the resinous smell of the trees. Seabirds are flashing above the sails all golden like creatures of Heaven, but the sailors fire a few shots to keep them from the rigging.
Mary holds Young James up so that he may always remember this first sight of the continent that will be his home. She tells him the name of this land—Nova Scotia.
“It means New Scotland,” she says.
Agnes hears her. “Then why doesn’t it say so?”
Mary says, “It’s Latin, I think.”
Agnes snorts with impatience.