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Alice Munro: “Dear Life”

Dear-Life“Dear Life” is the fourteenth and final story in Alice Munro’s short story collection Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.

I really didn’t want to finish this short story collection, which came out last November but which, in a sense, I’ve been reading for the past two and a half years since Munro published “Corrie” in the October 11, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. All but two of the stories here were published somewhere at sometime since that October, and who knows if we’ll ever get anything more.

The title story was first published in the September 19, 2011, issue of The New Yorker as “Dear Life: A Childhood Visitation,” and I first read it there. I didn’t review it at the time because it was published as a “Personal History,” and I just didn’t get around to it. Because the piece was presented as nonfiction, I was surprised to see this collection of short stories titled Dear Life, but then it all made sense when we found out that the last four stories in it were explicitly “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.”

In some ways “Dear Life” takes us back to Munro’s very first short story collection which included two of my favorite stories: “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and “The Peace of Utrecht.” As in “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” here the narrator, an older Alice Munro looking back on her childhood, reflects on her father’s failed business raising silver foxes and mink. As in “The Peace of Utrecht,” this piece also reflects on a particular experience with Munro’s mother (though, interestingly, as published in Dear Life the piece has taken out an explicit reference to “The Peace of Utrecht” that was included in the version that showed up in The New Yorker. All in all, this is a fantastic piece, and, if it is to be, a fitting way to end a career as one of the world’s greatest writers.

“Dear Life” begins (like “Walker Brothers Cowboy”) with a description of the town and the surrounding areas. We learn that Munro lived not quite in the country and not quite in the town, and in just a few short pages we sense the richness of a childhood, complete with scenes from school and home, shown in various states of transition. It is a look at a time now long past but still part of memory — for a while longer.

After this generous look at childhood, its innocence and vibrance in the face of decline, Munro tightens the story up (as she so often does) and focuses on one scene, a terrifying visit from an unhinged neighbor, Mrs. Netterfield. Alice was just a baby, set outside while her mother washed the dishes. Something — who knows what — makes her mother glance outside, and her heart sinks when she sees Mrs. Netterfield coming down the road threateningly. Her mother rushes out and grabs Alice, gets back in the house and blocks the door.

I hesitate to go further, but I will say that there was a degree of malice in Mrs. Netterfield’s heart, a malice and the sadness we all feel when we realize time has changed everything, a malice that Alice came to understand only years later. It’s not a spoiler to give you the final line:

We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.

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