The View from Castle Rock
is a short story collection by Alice Munro, published in 2006. The 11 stories are split between historical tales inspired by the real-life events affecting Munro’s ancestors and contemporary stories inspired by events in Munro’s own life.
The first story, “No Advantages,” introduces Munro’s distant relatives, the Laidlaw family, who lived in Ettrick Valley, in Scotland in the 1700s; the title comes from the 1799 Statistical Account of Scotland that described the area as possessing “no advantages,” quoted at the very beginning of the story. The narrator describes the history of Ettrick Valley and the area occupied by their family, known as Far-Hope. They describe Will Laidlaw, who came to be known under the legendary name Will O’Phaup as a criminal and brawler who often encountered the supernatural; Thomas Boston, a heretical preacher who lived a life filled with hardship; James Hogg, who was a poet; and his cousin James Laidlaw. James Laidlaw eventually takes his family to America when he is an old man.
In the titular story, the Laidlaws’ ocean voyage to America is described. Long before they leave, James Laidlaw (called Old James) takes his young son Andrew to the top of Edinburgh Castle and tells him the distant shore is America. Years later, Old James, his sons Walter and Andrew, and Andrew’s wife Agnes and son Young James travel to America. Young James goes missing during the voyage, frightening Agnes, and later dies shortly after their arrival. Walter meets a wealthy but ill woman in America but refuses her father’s offer of employment.
In “Illinois,” Old James’ other son, William, also moves to America, arriving in Joliet, Illinois, with his wife Mary. William wishes to leave Scotland and the old ways behind and start over completely fresh. William dies of cholera shortly afterwards, and Mary and the children are moved to Canada by his brother Andrew. William’s son Jamie fakes a kidnapping of their youngest girl, Jane, in an effort to stop the move. The reader is informed that the youngest of William’s sons, Thomas, is the author’s great-grandfather.
“Working for a Living” is a story about Alice Munro’s father, who despises his poor upbringing but finds solace in the woods, hunting and trapping. He turns this into a living when he grows up, launching a business raising fur animals like minks and foxes. When World War II breaks out, the business begins to fail, but Munro’s mother has the idea to sell furs to American tourists. The business eventually fails anyway, and her father gets a job at a foundry.
“Fathers” is the first of the stories about Alice Munro herself. She describes her time in school and two particular friends she had, Dahlia Newcombe and Frances Wainwright. Dahlia’s father is terrifying, a violent man who regularly beats his wife and kids as a form of discipline. Frances’ father is a quiet, sensitive man who never raises his voice. Alice describes her own father as a balance between the two, capable of temper and occasionally using corporal punishment as a tool and not as the result of rage.
In “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” Alice Munro recounts a story involving her family’s neighbor when she was a teenager. Miriam McAlpin had a horse farm, and Alice sneaks onto her property in order to lie under the apple trees. She is accused of meeting a secret boyfriend. Later, Munro meets McAlpin’s stable boy, Russell, and has a crush. She meets him in McAlpin’s barn but has to sneak out when McAlpin arrives; she overhears evidence that the two have a romantic relationship, and she never sees the stable boy again.
In “Hired Girl,” Munro tells of getting a job as a house servant for a wealthy family during the summer when she was 17. She initially finds the family glamorous and sophisticated, and is inspired by them. When the husband suggests she swim without her bathing suit in the house pool, she is both repulsed and excited. When the summer ends, he gives her a book, and she finds herself enthralled by literature for the first time.
In “The Ticket,” Munro is 20 years old. She is preparing for her first marriage, and her family is relieved that she found someone who could tolerate her. Munro reflects on three marriages—her parents, her grandparents, and her aunt and uncle. Her Aunt Charlie seems to be the only one who married for love, and Munro is surprised when she warns her about how difficult marriage is. Munro confesses to the reader that her first husband deserved better than her.
In “Home,” Munro’s marriage is ending; she is in love with another man, and she visits home. Her mother has passed away and her ailing father has remarried to a woman named Irlma. Irlma is very energetic and forceful, and insists she was always meant to be Munro’s stepmother. Irlma senses Munro’s sense of superiority and resents her for it.
By the time of “What Do You Want to Know For,” Munro is sixty years old and remarried. She detects a lump in her breast and reflects on death; she concludes she has lived well and thus it wouldn’t be the most terrible thing. The experience and the discovery of a mysterious crypt prompts her to take a renewed interest in her family, leading directly to the stories in the collection.
In “Messenger,” Munro travels to Joliet, searching for clues about William Laidlaw. She finds nothing, and the story drifts into descriptions of the oldest memories of her relatives, ending with Munro’s own memory of finding a seashell on a beach as a child, and the sound of the ocean in her ear.