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Alice Munro was ours: why the Nobel Prize-winning writer, who died Monday, was beloved to Canadians

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One of Canada’s most beloved authors, called the “greatest short story writer alive” when she won the Nobel Prize in 2013, has died. Alice Munro was 92.

A spokesperson for Penguin Random House Canada said Munro died Monday at home in Port Hope, Ont. She had been in frail health for years and often spoke of retirement, a decision that proved final after the author’s 2012 collection, “Dear Life,” was published.

The native of Wingham, Ont., began her career in the 1960s with her first collection of short stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades.” She won the Governor General’s Literary Award for that book, and won again in 1978 for “Who Do You Think You Are” and in 1986 for “The Progress of Love.”

Her accolades also included two Scotiabank Giller Prizes and the Man Booker International Award for her body of work.

But her value to Canadians went beyond the awards she won.

Writing in 2013, former Toronto Star reporter Leslie Scrivener described Canadians’ claim on her by saying, “Alice Munro is ours.”

“Her geography is ours. Open any of her books and you will find a story set on the Queen St. streetcar, or Kitsilano Beach, or on the Bay of Fundy. One of her characters is watching TV, riveted by news of a terrible fire in Toronto, the burning buildings once home to hippies, ‘with their tarot cards and beads and paper flowers the size of pumpkins.’ In another, you’ll find a mention of Pierre Berton.

“Hers are haunting stories, seared on to our hearts … Mostly, they are set in Munro’s Presbyterian Ontario towns, where Maclean’s and Chatelaine and Saturday Night await patients in the doctor’s waiting room. Her characters attend the United Church; they shop at Canadian Tire.”

David Staines, a Canadian literary critic and English professor at the University of Ottawa, knew Munro for more than four decades and said he’ll remember her as an “exceptional” human and writer.

She could find inspiration in some of the most ordinary and mundane moments of life, said Staines, who visited her last week.

“In Clinton, Ont., she would say that she’d love to go to the laundromat,” he said in a phone interview. “She heard stories there. And something she really enjoyed was just observing.”

Madeleine Thien, who won a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2016, told the Star that Munro had changed her life. She shared words that she read about Munro in 2018 at the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story.

“In my 20s, I walked through the stories of Alice Munro as if they, too, were my home, as if I had grown up knowing all too well the fields, skies, shops, parlours and factories of Huron County. There are stories of hers that I have read dozens of times, climbing staircases I thought I knew — only to be plummeted into a room I hadn’t expected, and jolted into the light …

“Her girls and women are flawed, lustful, tender, they are liars, schemers and truth-tellers, geniuses, daughters, widows — it is because they are all these things, not in spite of it, that wisdom comes in bursts and flares.

“Her books are like half-lit, shadowed rooms in which we keep bumping into one another, and into ourselves. When her stories pull aside a curtain, they reveal another puzzle of the world. I’ve always felt that these words of Virginia Woolf describe what Alice Munro has given us: ‘I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific.’”

Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in 1931 in Wingham.

She married James Munro when she was just 20 years old. She took care of her family — the couple had three girls, Sheila, Catherine and Jenny — and began writing. The couple eventually moved to Victoria and opened the bookstore Munro Books in 1963. (The store is still open, given by James Munro, who died in 2016, to his employees in 2014.)

The marriage broke down and, in 1973, Alice returned to Ontario.

She taught creative writing at York University, later becoming the writer in residence at the University of Western Ontario. She was published regularly in the New Yorker magazine.

Scrivener wrote in the Star that William Shawn, the fabled editor of the New Yorker, hesitated to publish Munro in the early years, finding her work a little “rough,” apparently a reference to vulgar language.

But Munro loved the magazine because it wouldn’t refuse stories on grounds of length though, even into the 1990s, she told Peter Gzowski, the New Yorker would sometimes turn her down.

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Alice Munro receives the Governor General’s Literary Award from then Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé in 1987.

Her ideal, she said, was to write “something so clear, as if looking through perfectly clean water, so words don’t get between the reader and what’s happening.”

At the beginning of her 1971 novel “Lives of Girls and Women” Munro noted that the story was “autobiographical in form but not in fact.”

As in her other stories, a quite recognizable southern Ontario town featured and informed her characters and their lives.

Munro told the Paris Review in 1994 that her writing “didn’t go over well in my hometown. The sex, the bad language, the incomprehensibility …”

She was excoriated in an editorial in the Wingham Advance-Times in 1981 for making townspeople “the butt of soured and cruel introspection.” But in 2013, North Huron Reeve Neil Vincent told the same newspaper that people in town “feel very honoured that she wrote about things she knew. She wrote about this area.”

When she won the Nobel, the Swedish Academy hailed her as the “master of the contemporary short story.”

“She is the greatest short-story writer alive in the world. That’s the gist of it,” said Peter Englund, a member of the Nobel committee that chose her.

“Most Nobel laureates, as well as most authors in general, they have weak points in their production, they have slacks, they are not up to speed in every work they are doing …

“But the amazing thing, and it really speaks for Alice Munro’s talent, is that she has none of these weak points and that is very, very rare among authors.”

She was the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize.

At the time, she wasn’t well enough to travel to Sweden to accept the award; her daughter, Jenny, appeared in her stead.

Englund noted then in his closing words: “Over the years, numerous prominent scientists have received their well-deserved reward in this auditorium for having solved some of the great enigmas of the universe or of our material existence. But you, Alice Munro, like few others, have come close to solving the greatest mystery of them all: the human heart and its caprices.”

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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