“Working for a Living”
by Alice Munro
from The View from Castle Rock

“Working for a Living” is a spare and beautiful memoir of the author’s parents and paternal grandparents. The 43-page essay is primarily about Munro’s father, perhaps because Munro’s stories had already explored the many strands and knots in the various aspects of her relationship with her mother. Munro plays no tricks on the reader, although there is one notable sentence which resisted my easy or immediate comprehension.

Her mother is gone for a summer, living at a resort, selling her father’s furs to Americans. Her father’s mother has moved in to take care of the three kids and run the house. Munro herself was ten. Her grandmother brought an efficient harmony to things. Munro tells of them sitting out on the lawn after supper, reminiscing as they looked out on the fields and the river hidden in the flats and waves of wooded hills beyond.

My mother’s absence brought a sort of peace — not only between [my father and his mother], but for all of us. Some alert and striving note was removed. An edge of ambition, self-regard, perhaps discontent, was absent. At the time, I did not know exactly what it was that was missing. I did not know either what a deprivation, rather than a relief, it would be for me, if that was gone for good.

Those italics and the bolding are mine. That is me stumbling over a sentence and stumbling over a word, both when I first read it and stumbling even now when I have had to go back and search for it.

First of all, I recognize the scene: a father being most at ease in the easy comfort of his mother. For me that was my grandparents’ house in West Virginia, where my own father was comfortable and ebullient and easy.

But here Munro is really talking about her mother. Not actually her mother, though. She is talking about “That.” She is talking about the “that” that was her mother. That’s where I stumbled. Not her mother as a person or a mother or even a human, but her mother as a force. “That.”

. . . an alert and striving note . . . .  An edge of ambition, self regard, perhaps discontent . . .

. . . what a deprivation, rather than a relief, it would be for me, if that was gone for good.

When? When was that ambition and regard of self gone for good? Munro’s mother did not die until 1959. By then, Munro had been married, out of the house, and across the continent for seven or eight years. According to this memoir, her mother’s official diagnosis of Parkinson’s was late during Munro’s high school years, but she had been failing for some time, to the degree that Munro was responsible for the house.

She could no longer walk or talk or eat normally . . .

The key word, really, in that obstinate sentence that I struggled to locate, I think, is ambition. Because Munro’s anger at her mother was over the mother’s abdication. On the same page as Munro mentions her mother’s abdication, she refers to her own “ambition.” Her mother is absorbed in her illness, but the high-schooler is already thinking about her own future with an eagerness that might match the mother’s old, now abdicated, ambition:

Even now, on cool bright evenings, with the leaves just out on the trees, I can feel the stirring of expectation connected with this momentous old event, my ambition roused and quivering like a fresh blade to meet it.

As angry as Munro had been taught to be by her father’s people at her mother’s ways, she had picked up some of them, ambition, in particular.  

In contrast, after a failed twenty years running a fox farm, her father had just gone to work as a combination night-watchman/janitor at a foundry. The long memoir is not about her mother, really, but an affectionate appreciation of her father, the man who put up with her mother and who was happy at the foundry, where he had pals and easy friendships, and where “the weight was off him.” I think he took a job at night so he could be home with his sick wife during the day, and the daughters could be home with her at night.

But here comes, in a rather straightforward memoir, another sentence which is a stumbling block for me — a sentence Munro leaves it up to me to make sense of:

My father always said that he didn’t really grow up till he went to work in the foundry.

Early in the memoir, Munro tells an odd story about how her father mis-heard the spoken word when he was in high school. He told about hearing a spoken poem as a parody of itself with only a nonsensical and mishmash of meaning. The modern teacher in me wonders if he had an auditory processing disorder, a learning disability that would have made it difficult to succeed in a teaching environment that was primarily lecture. Because her father read a great deal as a boy, perhaps no one, even he, expected him to fail at high school. In addition, Munro has made a point of what we might now call emotional over-sensitivity and bullying, the effects of which may have made him withdraw from high school into his strange pre-occupation with trapping. Munro has also made a point of his mother’s efficient protectiveness and a further point of his lack of friends as a young man.

I am interested in what her father meant when he said he didn’t really grow up until he went to work in the foundry. While his mother was efficient, and while Munro makes a point of her grand-father’s hard-working prosperity, it is the grandfather’s silence that looms. The man lived to work and lived to read: Scottish philosophers. Munro does not explain herself. But it seems to me that her father’s failure at high school and then his failure at the farm are both marked by how he had failed to become his prosperous father and how he had been, at first, almost protected by his efficient mother and then his ambitious wife. It wasn’t until the foundry, it seems, that he established a comfortable circle of men. And, of course, it was the foundry that allowed him to provide for his wife who could not now provide at all for herself.

What looms clear in this affectionate memoir of her father is that he and his heritage were all readers and writers, while what her mother was a brilliant sport who could push herself out of the scrub and succeed (upon occasion) in ways almost no one could predict or understand. Munro accounts of the dedication to precision of her father’s work on the 9-acre fox farm, a precision we see in her own work. And she reveals her mother’s heady and combination nonsensical/tyrannical ambition that drove her mother. Such that loving kindness was not what Munro felt from her mother. Such that, in contrast, her father’s occasional, confessional honesty and apparent lack of animosity to his difficult wife appears to be loving kindness. She spurred. He provided.

And speaking of provisions: given this memoir, Munro’s father apparently did not pressure Munro either not to marry at 20, or to stay home to help when her mother became incapacitated while Munro was in high school, such that Munro was responsible for the housework. He did not pressure his daughter to stay. He provided.

I often wonder if I am paying Munro her due respect with all my wondering. But her whole writerly impulse is to be naturally reserved and also purposely puzzling. So I linger on trying to understand these key things about her parents, because she seems to invite me to do just that. Even though there is actually so much more to the memoir.

So much more? 

1. The title: “Working for a Living”:  I am struck by how living is defined by work. In these people, to be really alive is to be working. Munro’s father is really alive when absorbed in the design of his fox farm, but he is also really alive at the foundry. He is not, in her memory, really alive in his marriage. Her grandmother and grandfather are portrayed as really alive in their work (although her grandfather’s real work, his real absorption, may have been philosophy), but not particularly alive or rewarded in their marriages. And there is a touching portrait of Munro’s mother uncanny ability to imagine and carry out a project to sell her husband’s furs at a hotel — during which she seems a different person, almost unrecognizable. “Working for a Living” is not the drear thing the idiom suggests. “Working” is instead what makes life alive. Thus, Munro’s incredible and steady output, despite all odds and all difficulties, is in, according to this memoir, the family tradition.

2. Her father takes up the family habit of writing: Late in life, Munro’s father took up writing and even published a few pieces. He started with reminiscence, graduated to fiction, and even wrote a novel.

He told me that writing it had surprised him. He was surprised that he could do such a thing, and surprised that doing it could make him so happy.

3. Fathers: While Munro’s grandfather was uncommunicative and cold, her father’s grandfather was the opposite. In her father’s memoirs he writes about how he and his grandfather rambled about: collecting fossils, keeping a collection, exploring the heights above the train tracks, visiting the train station, buying the newspaper, learning about politics, and all the while being in the presence of someone who seemed to be “discovering” the world with his grandson. In an echo, Munro details the hard work her father put into the foxes as well as the evening he shared the foundry with her. And Munro makes a point of quoting her father, the way he opened up to her about things. Especially, maybe, his pride and gratitude and surprise at the way his wife saved them back in the summer of ‘41.

4. The position of this story: The fifth in a series of family “histories.” Munro’s father is, in comparison to the very strange family in “The Wilds of Morris Township,” a roaring success. His journey through life, although ultimately successful, is an emigration from his family of origin fraught with failure, much like the lives in “Illinois.” And yet, the wild hope of his ancestors (in the book’s title story) as they embarked from Scotland to Canada is mirrored in his own innocent dream of making a living, first as a trapper and then as an entrepreneur. As for how “No Advantages” builds toward Munro’s parents, I mention Will O’Phaup’s prodigious deeds as forerunner to Munro herself, her father and mother. And there are the comparative ironies: that the Ettrick valley was a place of “no advantages,” except that everyone could read and write and many, even in her family, did write. Just as the fox farm was a place of no advantages, except that books and ambition were the natural atmosphere of the Laidlaw house. Regardless of any Presbyterian doubts about “calling attention to yourself.”

5. The Irish side: Munro makes a lot of her Scottish line. Not much of her Irish, except to indicate they seemed impractical. Even though her formidable ambition seems to spring from the Irish side, she seems to attribute the carry-through to the Scots. I note this. My own Scots great grandmother used to ask her grand-daughters: What are you going to do today? Meaning: what do you intend to accomplish. . . 

6. As a model of memoir: Hmmm, 43 pages is a model of brevity that both forces an economy of expression and a minimum of opinion while also raising the writing to a kind of poetic essence that provokes wonder and question.

Is “Working for a Living” a model of “paying attention? It pays exquisite and detailed attention to the observation of Munro’s father, mother and paternal grandparents. It pays not very much attention to Munro herself and no attention at all to a sense of personal deprivation.

Mostly, “Working for a Living” inspires one to think of memoir as a means of cautious thanksgiving and very cautious recognition.

7. Religion: I leave this till last as it is so problematical. Serious religious inquiry is so very suspect in post WWI literature. Why mention it at all? Why go there? And yet, in her own writing, Munro does go there over and over, although in Munro, religion is more of a philosophical speculation and exploration than it is any recognizable catechism or faith. In this 43-page memoir, Munro specifically mentions her grandfather’s intense interest in philosophical Scots. In “No Advantages” in particular, Munro specifically explores the contradictions of Presbyterianism — that it is the very source of Scottish “disputatiousness” as well as a well-spring of interest in sin. She purposely bookends the discussion of religion in all of the five stories of Part One with an interest in the regulation and intellectual inquiry that Presbyterianism inspires, as well as the wild side of the alluringly dark, almost demonic fairies of Scotland.

She specifically mentions her grandmother’s conversion from Anglicanism to devoted Presbyterianism as a kind of competition, as a kind of ticking the boxes of rules and regulations. Loving kindness, as regards to the woman’s daughter-in-law, did not appear to be a mandate of any kind whatsoever. And yet, over and over in Munro’s work in general, the means to awakening, the means to a kind of emigration, the means to loving kindness, and the means to self-recognition remain primary concern. The recognition of one’s own cruelty is a central preoccupation, especially in the later works, but so is the recognition of (and righteous escape from) the situation being cruelly treated. Her religious inquiry, late in the career, often takes the form of “paying attention” and “investigation” (as in any form of observation, including writing). But she is not above investigating the nature of guilt and whether it should be paid any serious consideration.

8. The View from Castle Rock — Part One: These stories, especially the first one, are difficult to appreciate. 

I continue to think the first one is a mistake, perhaps the only story in Munro’s whole work that should not have been published as is. I feel for those readers who first encountered Munro in “No Advantages.” The confusions for the reader in this story are monumental. This story is a fruitcake that is all hard-old fruit and no cake. And yet. There are memorable things: John Knox, Will O’Phaup, Thomas Boston’s wife. Each (and more) deserving of their own story. The editors, in their adoration of the genius Munro is, did Munro a disservice.

The first four stories present difficulties with time that go beyond any difficulties with time the reader experiences in a conventional Munro story. In Part One, the reader is continually confronted with a confusion about historical setting that ultimately does not work. I may be unusual in needing to know where I am in time and space, but still, the stories (especially the first) are somewhat unmoored regarding time and space.

9. Names: A second general problem in these first four stories is a difficulty with names. First, there are so many people and so many names. Second, a lot of these people have the same name.

Regardless, I bow before genius. I loved the title story, I loved “Illinois,” and I loved “Working for a Living.” 

10. The View from Castle Rock — as metaphor: A Munro ancestor tells people you can see America from Castle Rock in Edinburgh. In reality, you cannot. This is fanciful, this is fabrication, this is country illiteracy. In just this way, the writer faces the same ignorance in sitting down to imagine the past at any distance at all. The view is probably not what you think it is.

At the same time, the view you see from Castle Rock could not be more true. That Munro ancestor could see America in his mind’s eye. It was the place a person could own his own land and be more free than the king himself.

Munro is describing the serious seer. What you see when do the formidable work of paying attention is a vision of the truth. Her ancestor knew that he could not own land in Scotland, and he knew he should escape from what to him seemed captivity. He had climbed to that level of awareness through some dint of reading, speculation and observation. The climb up the formidable rock is the access to sight. The climb, the work, the daring, the seeing — that is life itself.

11. Escape: To a degree, the Munro ancestors escaped Scotland. Munro’s work represents a serious escape from the short sightedness of rule-bound Presbyterianism. The travelers dancing at seven in the morning om the deck of the ship bound for America are escaping stricture and embracing their new selves. The boy in “Illinois” who steals and hides his baby sister is escaping his terrible losses with a mistaken solution. The unmarried sister who moves in with her brother is escaping the tyranny of a warped family and the tyranny of a self-appointed household dictator. Munro’s father escaped high school, he escaped his family of origin, and finally, for a few hours a day, he escaped the tyranny of his wife’s disability. In the end, we know that Munro herself escapes more than once.  And Will O’Phaup, the ancestor who begins the book, escapes the tyranny of 17th century Scotland by an escape into myth, but an escape determined by his own formidable strength. Emigration into self-definition is the perpetual necessity for anyone living in the Munro universe. 

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