by Alice Munro
from The View from Castle Rock

“Fathers” is the first story in Part Two (“Home”) of The View from Castle Rock, a collection published when Alice Munro was 75. “Fathers” is fiction, while the story that precedes it is not; “Working for a Living,” the last story in Part One (“No Advantages”) is a memoir of Munro’s father.

I go to the trouble of cataloguing the story’s placement due to something that Munro placed in her two-page “Foreword”:

These stories [in Part Two] were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than  the other stories I had written, even in the first person.

“Fathers” will remind everyone who has read “Royal Beatings” of that story. In that story, a step-mother, exasperated with her step-daughter having recited a racy jingle, goads the girl’s father to give her a beating. While “Royal Beatings” is very dark, and the beatings perhaps the reason or part of the reason the adult Rose is half broken, the beatings in “Fathers” are a different thing. I return to the Forward:

During these years [of doing investigations into her father’s line and writing memoir] I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together at regular intervals. Why not?” I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then did anything I wanted to with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I had not collected I was not doing exactly that. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. . . . You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.

The italics put into this excerpt are my own notation. 

As for “Fathers,” placed following the memoir about her father, Munro is making sure the reader understands that the father in “Royal Beatings” is not her own father, and Munro is not broken Rose (although I do think that Munro was exploring in that story what she might have become, had circumstances been different. As Robert Thacker suggests.). “Fathers,” published long after her father’s death, is a kind of apology, to both her mother and father, although “apology” is surely my own word and interpretation of what Munro has done and “apology” probably falls short. In “Fathers” Munro addresses, I think, the way her father’s parenting shaped her character and the way it was, given the times, a respectable 40s middle ground of child-raising between utter brutality and stupid indulgence.

“Fathers” emphasizes Munro’s own wild pre-teen extravagances of trying things on. It emphasizes her pre-teen ignorance and her petty pre-teen cruelties.

We were decent people. My mother, though sometimes grieved by the behavior of her family, did not go into town with snaggly hair, or wear floppy rubber galoshes. My father did not swear [or drink, either]. He was a man of honor and competence and humor, and he was the parent I sorely wanted to please.

As for the three or four times her father had beaten her, Munro makes clear:

I felt as if it must be my very self that they were after, and in a way I think it was. The self-important disputatious part of my self that had to be beaten out of me.

But she also makes clear that this was the manner of child-raising at the time, and that in fact Munro makes clear that her father was somehow addressing and correcting something that actually needed correcting: “A shaky arrogance in my nature, something brazen yet cowardly . . .”

It’s that word – cowardly – that catches my attention, that there was something in that self-important disputatious self that was cowardly, especially in the light of the casual cruelty that Munro the child had dealt to the strange and coddled neighbor child from Chicago.

I like this peculiar memoir/fiction very much and am grateful to Munro for writing it. There are in it glimpses of the evolution of morality and compassion. It reminds me of the 1982 book by Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. “Fathers” also reminds me of two books by Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (1990) and The Moral Intelligence of Children (1997).

There are many purely fictional stories in Munro that address the psychological development of pre-teen and early teen girls: “Boys and Girls,” “Age of Faith,” “Royal Beatings,” “Privilege,” “Open Secrets,” “Rich as Stink,” “Vandals,” “Child’s Play,” and others.

But to finish up, I would like to return to the structural idea of glimpses of the evolution of morality and compassion in Munro as a means of writing our own memoir. We see Munro attempting to make sense of Dahlia and Frances in this story, but all we have to go on are glimpses.

Thinking of these glimpses, I am reminded of glimpses of my own — the 15 year old girl who arrived in 1953 in my fourth grade class from somewhere in Europe — heavy blonde braids wrapped around her head, silent, living with her family in an old wooden warehouse up a lonely road not far from me. I wondered and wondered about her. Another glimpse, this time of my own selfish failings in friendship, and my new best friend schooling me in necessary loyalties to old friends – a year later. And then, another scene, right after her father had died, me walking through the woods to visit that same best friend, who is 11, and she is sick in bed, too, although she gets better. A glimpse of me heatedly arguing with my father about how a rocket works. And then . . . well, you get the picture. A way of glimpsing the past. A way of glimpsing development without a lot of overlay, without a lot of interpretation.

It is Munro’s reserve that impresses me, over and over. It is her constant guard against self-important disputatiousness. The way she lets me or her own daughters mull over what she’s presented and make of it what they or I am able.

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