Local history into fiction: James Reaney on Alice Munro

Alice Munro 2016

Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Works and its companion Alice Munro Everlasting form a two-volume collection celebrating the work of Canadian writer Alice Munro.  Editor J.R. (Tim) Struthers has brought together critical appreciations from 34 contributors, including Catherine Sheldrick Ross, George Elliott Clarke, Jack Hodgins, Judith Thompson, Monika Lee, and James Reaney

Like James Reaney, Alice Munro grew up in Southwestern Ontario and many of her stories are set in Wingham, Ontario, in Huron County. Reaney’s essay, “An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture,” outlines a graduate course he taught at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1970s. 

Alice Munro’s novel Lives of Girls and Women, along with Orlo Miller’s The Donnellys Must Die and Sara Jeanette Duncan’s The Imperialist, were essential texts for the eighth lecture:

JULY 18: VIII. Through the Years in West Nissouri, Miller, Duncan, Munro.
This was local history into fiction day since Alice Munro in Lives of Girls and Women has an historian uncle whose idea of writing is to pile up droplets from the parish pump (Who was the reeve in 1901? When did the school trustees put in cement platforms around the porch?) and never try to drive a line through them. Eventually, the tin box with his research in it is thoroughly drowned by the Maitland River in flood.

Since Sara Jeanette Duncan’s novel about Brantford is our first successful realist novel, you should read it to see how these things should be done; what is frequently depressing about the run-of-the-mill novel about us nowadays is the imprecision of viewpoint; all right, you’re not going to tell us much of a story, but could you have dug out some photographic details just a tiny bit less clichéd than these? [Volume I, page 54]

Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Works and Alice Munro Everlasting: Essays on Her Works are available from Guernica Editions.

James Reaney’s “An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture” originally appeared in Black Moss, Ser. 2, No. 3 (Spring 1977).

See also Stan Dragland’s Wordsfest lecture James Reaney on the grid (November 2, 2019) where Dragland recalls being part of an earlier team-taught version of the course when he first came to Western.

The Alice Munro Literary Garden in Wingham, Ontario