The other night, we communed with Alice Munro. (This week’s
biting review of her latest book in the London
Review of Books only made us commune harder.)
Munro couldn’t attend the friendly panel of writers at the Memorial Park Library, but she sent her regrets in a handwritten letter to the organizer. (Rea Tarvydas passed around the precious artefact sealed in a Zip-Loc bag.) We carried on without her, the three panelists reading their own letters to Alice.
Lori Hahnel confessed her fantasy to live in the grand house in Comox, BC where she pretended Alice Munro wintered. Lee Kvern carted a copy of the 300-page novel manuscript she sent to Munro twenty-five years ago. (Munro wrote back to Lee, too.) Barb Howard toured us through her mother’s book club in the Seventies and mused about how Munro fit into the group’s smart/practical schism.
In the audience, I warmed myself on a cool rainy evening with my own Munro memories.
I met Del Jordan of Lives of Girls and Women when I was 17 – I have the same Signet paperback edition Barb brought from her mother’s library for show-and-tell. Back then, the Harlequin romance cover was a little embarrassing for a reader who saw herself as an aspiring student of literature. A young woman in a long white dress stands in in a windswept field with her lover under a menacing sky. A wonderfully female piece of fiction about many things, Cosmopolitan gushes in curling script on the front cover, but mostly one girl’s very special growing up. On the back cover, in all caps, it gets worse.
ALICE MUNRO HAS PUT THE SEXUALLY AWAKENING FEMALE UNDER GLASS AS SALINGER ONCE DID THE MALE… THE SLEEPER OF THE SEASON!
The kind of book you sneak under the covers.
My steely, motorbike-riding high school English teacher, Mrs. McLean insisted I read Lives of Girls and Women.
“This book will knock your socks off.”
Mrs. McLean was the smartest person I knew. I cracked open the cringe-worthy cover and entered into Del Jordan’s world.
On the surface, Del and I had little in common. She was of my mother’s post-war generation; I was a child of the Seventies. She lived in a small Ontario town; I lived in suburban boomtown Calgary. So much separated us, but that summer I lost myself in Del’s life. As I read, small explosions went off inside me: the body-sensations of seeing your inner life captured on the page of a book.
In university, I subjected Munro’s stories to an academic flogging, parsing her language, churning out arguments and analyses. But her prose, and the sparks of personal connection I experienced at 17, resisted my rookie attempts at dissection.
Not long ago, I was struggling to pin my spotty religious education to the page, and remembered Del’s botched baptism in the river. It can be dangerous traipsing around in books that fused to your younger self. For me, better to keep The Fountainhead and Women in Love under the bell jar of youth. At fifty, I tiptoed back to Del Jordan.
There, in “Age of Faith” was Del’s pragmatic, atheistic mother, who sounded just like my mother when presented with my adolescent hunger for a higher power. God was made by man! Not the other way around! I’d never fallen for a boy like Garnet French, but I had gagged on the water of religious immersion. Just like the first time I read Del’s story, I felt explosions of connection all over again.
At the panel, we were invited to write a postcard to Alice Munro. I hesitated. Where to start? How to contain everything I wanted to say on a 3x5 piece of paper? What do I call her? Ms. Munro? Alice Munro? Alice? These postcards would be heading to Clinton, Ontario in a big brown envelope.
Relax, keep it simple, be yourself. I steadied my hand, put pen to postcard.
Thank you for all your stories, but thank you especially for Del Jordan. My friendship with her, and the deep pleasure of your books, have lasted a lifetime.
Shaun Hunter, Calgary
I will force myself to read Christian Lorentzen’s pissy review, but I agree with Rea Tarvydas: “Alice is 81 years old, and I’m feeling protective of her.”
Steady as she goes, Alice. There's an envelope full of love coming your way.