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Alice Munro immortalized Huron County’s tiny towns and inhabitants. It’s changed, but slowly


Alice Munro in 2013.

Alice Munro took a county and turned it into a country.

Huron County is Alice Munro Country, a designation that was universally used in the international obituaries for the Nobel, Giller and Man Booker prize–winning writer who died May 13, aged 92.

Munro, who was born in Wingham, Ont., brought this swath of agricultural land with its tiny towns dotted along the Maitland River and the shores of Lake Huron to such vivid life in her work. Now coined “Ontario’s West Coast,” by the local tourist board, it is known for its production of soy beans, corn and hogs, according to huroncounty.ca. But mainly it is known for Munro.


The pastures and forested hills of Wingham, Huron County, where Alice Munro was born.

“I am intoxicated by this particular landscape, by the almost flat fields, the swamps, the hardwood bush lots, by the continental climate and the extravagant winters,” Munro said in 1998. “I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire. I speak the language.”

This is one of Munro’s answers to why she wrote about Huron County, collected in the “The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro” (2016), edited by literary critic and University of Ottawa professor David Staines. In 1983, she is quoted as saying, “I think of houses and streets and rooms and faces as what I put into the stories. But I never think I am writing a story about Wingham or I’m writing a story about a Southwestern Ontario small town. Ever. I just use that stuff because it’s familiar to me. It’s what I know about.”


Alice Munro in 1979.

As a transplant to Huron County — I live on a farm not far from where Munro’s father was raised near Blyth — I don’t have her roots deep in this soil. But the place does transfix me, in no small part because of the way she wove its people into universal stories.

When Munro was a child, the town of Clinton (where she lived for more than 25 years, until 2019) was far enough away from the bigger town of Goderich that if you worked in Goderich, you lived there. Today, I get bread at the bakery in Clinton then hop into Goderich for dairy.

In her later years, Munro would stroll the Goderich boardwalk, unpestered by admirers. Steps away is the locally famous Goderich town square, which is technically an octagon and said to have inspired Disneyland’s Main Street. Walt Disney’s father was from the area, and split the gravel himself to build a farm. The only other Huron County celebrity I can think of is Paul Henderson, the pivotal goal-scorer of the 72 Canada-Russia series, who was raised in Lucknow on the north border of the county.


Located in downtown Goderich, The Square is surrounded by historic buildings.

On that octagonal square, in the militaria shop, I found the 1984 Huron County Historical Atlas, which is kind of like a yearbook, oversized even by coffee-table standards, with trillium and flag logos indicating it was funded by the Ontario and federal governments.

The book contains 350 massive pages about the residents of the day and the history of their families, which shows it was very white, hereabouts, back then. Munro is mentioned just twice. Once in a footnote citation of one of her books. The other in a four-paragraph blurb on notable people in the county. Describing her as “a writer who writes superbly about ordinary things that happen to ordinary people,” it concludes with the note, “Alice Munro lives in Clinton and is married to Gerald Fremont.” By comparison, the Goderich Public Utilities Commission warrants two full pages.


Alice Munro’s childhood home in Wingham, Ont.

Today, Wingham (population 2,934 at last count) has finally embraced its favourite daughter: tourists make the pilgrimage to the Literary Garden erected in her name in 2002 in the middle of town, near the one decent pub that offers live music. But as recently as the ’80s, the local paper was calling her a “warped personality” and disgruntled (jealous?) residents wrote in deriding the poppy who grew taller than the rest.

“I was an outsider; I came into town every day for school, but I didn’t belong there,” said Munro, whose family farm was on the outskirts, in the nether world where the bootleggers lived. Storefronts, corners, even sections of sidewalk “took on a powerful, not easily defined, significance. It is not too much to say that every block in that town was some sort of emotional atmosphere for me.”


The writer in 1933, from “Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives” by Robert Thacker.

The Huron County of Munro’s youth is changing, but its imprint remains. Many families stayed, joined now, slowly, by people from all over. The hulking churches that loomed large in her characters’ social lives are still plentiful in the little towns of Huron County, but many have Letraset signs out front advertising pews for sale.

In recent years, young entrepreneurs have founded microbreweries and lavender farms, organic farm co-ops and drag queen bingo nights. The farmers’ markets draw tourists gathering Mennonite butter and cinnamon rolls. There are still monthly meat draws at the legion, the time-honoured way of raising money for local causes. Saturdays can see traffic jams as black horse-drawn buggies parallel park on the side streets. The more things change, the sharper the anachronisms. But signs of new life are inspiring in a place where people grow things for a living.

Munro focused in on the small and slow; reading her work is a pleasure akin to throwing your buzzing smartphone into a rushing river. “Marking the end of town were two bridges over the Maitland River: one narrow iron bridge, where cars sometimes got into trouble over which one should pull off and wait for the other, and a wooden walkway, which occasionally had a plank missing, so that you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water,” she wrote in “Dear Life” in the New Yorker (2011). “I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.”

The ability to find portent in a sidewalk and beauty in a Canadian Tire was the rarest of gifts. Like Hemingway’s Spain, Mavis Gallant’s Paris and Mordecai Richler’s Mile End, Huron County’s faces, kitchen tables and front lawns will forever be associated with Munro’s haunting, lasting stories.

Credit belongs to : www.thestar.com

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