The View From Castle Rock: A Review

Another book review? Whhaaattttt….. 2 in 1 week? No! Yes! Because I am way way waaaayyyy behind book schedule and the reviews are pouring into my inbox and I am having an AH! moment each time one comes in I’m thinking “oh look at that, they are so early! Isn’t that nice!” Only to realize: NO, they are not early! I am just very, very, very behind. And I have to read the books and it is becoming a leeeetle stressful. Are you seeing the stress? Ignore the stress. I got this. Book reviews. Reading books. On it.

photo 2

(Thanks for the photo Shaelyn!)

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro starts off with a foreword explaining her process and explaining what she was trying to accomplish with the book. That right there is a major turn off for me. As a writer you should not have to explain your work, the work should be doing that for you. If you want to draw connections between historical events, fictitious/not-so-fictitious people/your own personal hisory do it! But do it in the narrative. So I had a little bit of an eye roll, frustrated sour taste in my mouth from the beginning. But let’s see what our reader’s thought!


Meet Amanda! She lives in the Netherlands! And we were lucky enough to meet her and her husband when they were visiting San Francisco about 2 months after Gabe was born. She is incredibly smart and I really value her opinions on the natural world and biology and how we all function as animals. Which is a weird thing to say, but is so true. That is her little girl in the photo! Hi Yulia!!

photo 1

This is Shaelyn! She lives in Alabama, which is kind of a mythical place I can only imagine in books and movies about the south. Like I imagine everyone has a porch and a rocking chair, probably a dirt driveway with an old but lovable pickup and a dog on a rope leash. It’s hot and people fan themselves a lot. Somehow everyone looks good in overalls and/or white cotton dresses. Anyways, I could truly go on and on. Last Christmas I sent Shaelyn a lemon tree.

Amanda: I was really excited to have this book assigned. I’d heard Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013 and I had been wanting to read her. I know they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes that’s exactly what I do. I like art, fancy book covers, photos, type, design. The cover on the edition I got, with a picture of a girl in a yellow embroidered dress holding what appears to be an old notebook and a blank one where she is ready to write something, while sitting on the grass got me intrigued right away.

Shaelyn: I hadn’t heard of this book before, though the author’s name was vaguely familiar. I was a little nervous about it when I looked it up on Amazon, because its cover was an example of a “ladies’ cover” as discussed here. I thought it might be a less-than-serious book because of that. The introduction, where she described her process of using stories from her ancestors to create a sort of melded memoir/fiction/biography also made me nervous. It seemed like it would be hard to blend reality and fiction and make it interesting while still writing in her own voice.

Lauren: Someone suggested this book to me many, many years ago. It has traveled with me on like 4 movies or something. And I don’t know why I put it off so long. So this was on my list of MUST READ. Even if just to get it off my guilt shelf.

Amanda: Part memoir, part fiction, part imagined what could-have been, this book is a collection of short stories, independent of each other, but actually linked together as they trace back a family’s history (Alice’s own) of a migration from Scotland in the eighteenth century to North America, ending up in Canada and detailing their adventure as they look for a better future in far away, unknown lands. It takes the reader from the Ettrick Valley near Edinburgh, through Newfoundland, to Chicago, Joliet, The Huron Valley, Ontario… It is the story of great grandmother’s and grandfather’s, of uncles, of lost-relatives as the times change until today.

Shaelyn: It’s hard to give a synopsis for a bunch of related short stories! But, in short, the author used stories of and from her ancestors to write about their experiences in Scotland, on the trip to North America, and in Canada over the last several centuries and up to the present day. There are a lot of smaller stories within that larger arc.

Amanda: At some point the narrator talks about how there were always people in the family who liked to tell and record stories, to fantasize and decorate “reality”. This was not taken as a serious or honourable pass time by other members of the family, but it seemed that it was a quality that passed down and ran in the family. 

Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family. Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn’t exactly the word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself. And when I study the people I know about in the family, it does seem that some of us have that need in large and irresistible measure –enough so as to make the others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension.

And of course, because of the very nature of people who choose to migrate, I think there is a theme of adventure, of testing your luck, of going against the flow and against conventions and trying a completely different way of life, of challenging the ways you were taught, the places you were born into, the expectations.

Shaelyn: A lot of these stories were about the struggle to make a life for oneself, which is a pretty universal thing. Some characters were leaving home behind to create a new life in a new land. Some characters were trying to reinvent the ways they supported themselves. Some characters were just trying to persist in the way that we all do. It seemed like a lot of the characters were in the persistence category, not necessarily striving upwardly, just trying to get through the day.

One of the generations that is discussed, the author’s parents, raised foxes for furs during the first decades of the 20th century. That’s when I got hooked into the book, reading about the fox-fur industry and everything it entailed for the family. It’s kind of a great way to look at history, from the perspective of one family. It gives you an appreciation of how dang slowly some things seem to happen, even as you can get overwhelmed by the speed of time on a macro level.

I’ve also kept thinking about the legends at the beginning of the book, like the story of the “neighbors” who keep leading Will O’Phaup further afield as he tries and fails to catch up to them to ask for news. Fairies are spooky, y’all.

Amanda: I really enjoyed the book. I think she was particularly successful in that depending on who was narrating the voice of the protagonist always felt authentic, real and different. For example, here’s an excerpt of one of the oldest relatives, in Scotland, talking about being visited by fairies.

He is out on the hills as the day turns to evening and he keeps hearing a sound like a chattering and a twittering. He knows all the sounds that birds can make and he understands that this is no bird. It seems to come out of a deep hollow nearby. So he creeps and creeps very softly to te edge of the hollow and flattens himself down, just raises up his head enough that he can look over. And what does he see down below but a whole company of creatures all about as high as a two-year-old child, but none of them are children. They are little women, all dainty looking and dressed in green. And busy as they can be. Some baking bread in a bit of an oven and some pouring drink out of little kegs into glass pitchers and some fixing up the other one’s hair and all the time humming and chittering away…

Then later a story of a woman giving birth in the ship on their way to America. I thought this was particularly well written as you are told that the woman is ‘sick’ and lying in bed, but are not given the reason. However as soon as she started describing what was happening to her I knew it was labour she was talking about. I never read a description as accurate of what it feels (and having just had my first daughter, I spent a lot of time reading birth stories).

Agnes thinks that she is in the water and the waves are heaving her up and slamming her down again. Every time the waves slap her down it is worse than the time before and she sinks farther and deeper, with the moment of relief passing before she can grab it, for the wave is already gathering is power to hit her again. Then sometimes she knows she is in a bed, a strange bed and strangely soft, but it is all the worse for that because when she sinks down there is no resistance, no hard place where the pain has to stop. (…) Her mother bends over her and says in a drawling, cold, lauckadaisical voice, <<You are not trying, my girl. You must try harder>>.

Many of the stories are fascinating, her own mother’s ease at the chic-hotel selling fox-furs  to fancy tourists, the extroverted grandmother and her dramatic love-story, the tensions between them, and finally Alice’s own snippets of her coming of age in the 50’s and how it was to be a girl back then (when girls who dared to ride bikes were considered eccentric, or worse).

I think it is the nature of short stories, but many of the stories and particularly those where Alice talks about her own life left me wanting more, wondering what happened later in her life, curious about her, about the in-betweens. But I guess that’s not the story of this book, as the story of this book was the story of how her family and the generations that preceded the author came to establish themselves in Canada.

Shaelyn: This is hard to answer, in that I suppose she succeeded in weaving these disparate bits of family history into a fuller story, but because the stories were all about the same family, and because they were arranged chronologically, it ended up feeling less like a collection of short stories and more like a disjointed novel. I would have enjoyed having her voice more involved, talking about her perspective and research, creating a broader narrative arc regarding the act of her discovering the threads and weaving them together.

Lauren: It’s strange…. initially I really was not interested in the book. And even the format of it, left me with a “meh” feeling, but! (and I’m sure this speaks to the talent of Alice Munro) I was really drawn into each narrative. The stories were really good. So, I think she probably did succeed in what she was trying to do. It was a little experimental, it was a little bit of work for the reader, but I ended up enjoying it despite the things I didn’t like.

Amanda: The first stories, from the family’s trip in the eighteenth century were the most interesting for me, they had me wondering how hard life must have been back then, looking at maps of Scotland, trying to figure out where Hadrian’s wall is, when it was built and who were the “wild people” of up North.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by anything, but I also didn’t know particularly what to expect as this is the first book I read of Alice Munro.

Shaelyn: Munro’s candid discussion of her own youthful exploits was interesting to me. She maintains that the stories are not necessarily true, but even in that context, it’s hard to separate the author from the characters.

Amanda: I really enjoyed it, though I had trouble really getting into it at the beginning*. I always found it well written and interesting, easy to read, however it’s not one of those books where the story sucks you right in, where you can’t stop reading and you need to know what happens next right this second. It was more of a slow book, to be savoured and enjoyed calmly. At some point Munro talks about her fascination and admiration for nature, and her descriptions reminded me of Erin.

I think anyone interested in history, short stories, stories of migration, memoirs and families will enjoy this book.

*Maybe my slow start of the book had to do with the fact that reading when also wrangling a baby is quite the odyssey. I found I had to actually make and prioritise reading time, whereas before, of course it was something that came naturally. For that Lauren, I really admire how you have been able to keep reading and writing!

Lauren: Thanks Amanda! I wish I was even better at it than I am right now. Then maybe I wouldn’t be so beyond on book reviews!! haha. 

Shaelyn: I didn’t love the book, but I was definitely invested in it by the end. I think the IDEA of the book is powerful and interesting and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys memoir-fictions with a slightly unconventional structure.

Has anyone else read this one? What about other Alice Munro? This is the only thing I’ve read of her’s… which I think is strange and I had to look over her list of books several times to convince myself of that.

5 thoughts on “The View From Castle Rock: A Review”

  1. I read Dear Life while out on maternity leave at the beginning of the year. I loved it. It was a welcome adult place to go while his majesty napped.

  2. I read lots of Alice Munro when I was younger – I started reading her for high school lit, and then I loved the stories so I kept going. I was given Dear Life for Christmas and I haven’t read it yet (for shame, Eliza!) but I am hoping to. I remember feeling like the stories were more snapshots than full stories with beginnings and concrete endings, but also loving them for their lyrical quality and how firmly grounded they were in place and character. And now I’m excited to read this one because it’s actually about her history! Or at least, parts of it are, and I wouldn’t probably have known that otherwise.

Leave a Reply