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‘National treasure’: Canada’s short story master, Nobel winner Alice Munro dead at 92

CP NewsAlert: Canadian short story legend, Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro has died

Canadian author Alice Munro is photographed in Victoria on Dec. 10, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito



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By The Canadian Press

Short story legend Alice Munro, whose intricate tales depicting small-town southwestern Ontario earned her an international fanbase and the Nobel Prize in literature, has died at age 92.

Her daughter Jenny Munro said the celebrated writer, who had dementia for many years, died Monday at an Ontario care home where she’d spent her last days surrounded by family and friends.

“She was able to live with that horrible disease and have humour and get to a stage of unconditional love for all around her,” Jenny said Tuesday in a phone interview.

“I really was happy to be with her at the end because she made it a wondrous event – just strong and fighting and then peaceful.”

Penguin Random House Canada said in an emailed statement that it was mourning the death of “a national treasure,” calling Munro a writer of “enormous depth, empathy and humanity” whose work inspired countless others.

The Swedish Academy summed up the thoughts of many in the global literary community when it hailed Munro as the “master of the contemporary short story” in awarding her the Nobel Prize in fall 2013.

It was one of the many honours the Canadian literary treasure received throughout her distinguished career. Others included the Man Booker International Prize for her entire body of work, as well as two Scotiabank Giller Prizes (for 1998’s “The Love of a Good Woman” and 2004’s “Runaway”), three Governor General’s Literary Awards (for her 1968 debut “Dance of the Happy Shades,” 1978’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and 1986’s “The Progress of Love”) and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Though often lauded for bringing depth and universal appeal to her rural settings and characters, she said she was particularly proud of having given a voice to women through her stories, especially considering that at one time critics belittled her work.

“It was just taken for granted that the stuff of women’s lives did not make literature, and I do think that has changed and I hope I had something to do with it,” Munro said in Toronto in the fall of 2009.

“It was a very daunting thing to do. I remember a review in the New York Times … in which it said, ‘If it was the smell of the kitchen you were after, you would get it from this book.’

“That kind of thing was passed off very easily, it was considered quite OK to say things like that, to say that somehow a book that is about domestic life was of less value than a book that, say, is about someone who has a career as a prize fighter.”

Munro was revered for spare prose and stories that probed the human condition. Her tales were so deeply layered they seemed like novels, many often remarked.

Her themes evolved over the years, initially focusing on the problems of adolescent girls and later examining the difficulties of middle age. While she admitted her stories “hadn’t broadened out” from small-town settings, she questioned how her work was sometimes characterized.

“Often people say I write about ordinary people — and I don’t understand that,” she said.

“But I do go on exploring the same territory, and I guess that’s just because as I get older I see it from a different angle and I never get tired of it.”

Born in 1931 in the farming community of Wingham, Ont., Alice Laidlaw began writing as a teen with what she called “unreasonable” expectations.

“I expected to be famous some day,” she told The Canadian Press after her Nobel win.

“This is because I lived in a very small town and there was nobody who liked the same things I did, like writing, and so I just thought naturally, ‘Some day I’m going to write books,’ and it happened.”

She added: “It was only the way a very out-of-the-world person could do it, because I just had no idea about how I was going to achieve this. But I just made up stories all the time that I thought that some day I would tell them to people.”

Munro published her first story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” in a student publication in 1950.

When the story circulated around the community, she quickly learned that not everyone would appreciate her writing and some of its bolder flourishes.

The use of the expression “Jesus Christ” in the story’s dialogue had people talking.

“I can remember really hurting people,” she said of the reactions in Wingham whenever her stories were published.

“I hadn’t thought about shocking people, I really hadn’t, and this sort of thing was happening all the time. … Always hurting people a little bit, I always hoped they wouldn’t read what I’d written.”

In 1951 she married Jim Munro, whom she met during her journalism and English studies the University of Western Ontario. They moved to Victoria and had three daughters, Sheila, Jenny and Andrea. Munro juggled her domestic life with writing and working in their bookstore.

Munro’s marriage ended in 1972, the year after her coming-of-age collection of interlocked stories “Lives of Girls and Women” was published.

It was the time of “women’s liberation.” Munro was part of a generation of women who had married in the 1950s and, now that their children were grown, “still had a chance to make up for what they had missed out in their 20s,” her daughter Sheila wrote in the 2001 biography “Lives of Mothers and Daughters.”

The most difficult part of doing research for the book was examining “what I perceived as the distance and coldness towards me that I think was particularly strong when I was very little in those first couple of years,” wrote Sheila Munro.

She said her mother needed to hold back part of herself so she could give what she needed to her writing.

“It was painful to look at that and to put it in,” Sheila said when the book was published, “because we have such a wonderful relationship now, and we are such close friends and everything, and I realize just how hard it is to be a parent.”

Munro eventually moved back to Ontario with daughters Jenny and Andrea. In 1975, she worked as a writer in residence at the University of Western Ontario.

As she started publishing regularly in the New Yorker, she also faced pressure from the publishing community to write a novel.

She was talked out of the idea by Douglas Gibson, who became her longtime editor and publisher.

“I said, ‘Alice, they’re all telling you that? They’re all wrong. You’re a great short story writer: You’re a sprinter, you’re not a marathon runner, so if you want to go on writing short stories to the end of your life, I’ll go on publishing them and you’ll never ever hear me ask you for a novel,’” he said in a 2013 interview.

The two kept that bargain and went on to publish 14 collections of short stories.

Their first publication together was “Who Do You Think You Are?” and their last was 2012’s “Dear Life,” which contains four stories she feels are her most personal.

Getting personal was rare for the notoriously private and media-shy Munro, who was “very funny” behind the scenes, said Gibson.

In the ‘90s, she even acted onstage in two theatrical fundraisers — including a comedy — at the Blyth Festival Theatre near her home in southwestern Ontario.

Gibson said Tuesday that Munro’s death is a loss for all of Canada, and a very personal one for him.

“She was direct and honest…and an excellent friend,” he said by phone. “She was humble and just delighted to be part of the writing world.”

Among Munro’s best-known stories is “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about a couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. Filmmaker Sarah Polley adapted the story into the 2006 film “Away from Her,” starring Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.

For more than 25 years Munro lived in Clinton, Ont., with her second husband, Gerald Fremlin. They also spent time at their condo in Comox, B.C. Fremlin died in April 2013.

In 2002, Wingham saluted Munro on her 71st birthday with a commemorative garden. Several hundred people showed up, including the guest of honour.

At a public event in October 2009, Munro revealed she had heart bypass surgery and a bout with cancer. But she still said she felt she’d been lucky in life with her health, given that her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at about age 35 and died in her mid-50s.

Munro’s frail health prevented her from travelling from Victoria to Stockholm to receive her Nobel Prize in December 2013.

Daughter Jenny attended the lavish ceremony on behalf of her 82-year-old mother, who was the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first Canadian-based author to receive it. (Canadian-born Saul Bellow won in 1976 but moved to the U.S. as a boy and is more closely associated with Chicago.)

“It’s something you would never dream of happening,” Munro said in an interview after the ceremony, which she watched online at daughter Sheila’s Victoria home.

Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Munro proved to be an unusually popular choice for a Nobel Prize literature winner.

In a laudatory speech at the Nobel ceremony, he called her a “stunningly precise” writer who “is often able to say more in 30 pages than an ordinary novelist is capable of in 300.”

“Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people, but her intelligence, compassion and astonishing power of perception enable her to give their lives a remarkable dignity — indeed redemption — since she shows how much of the extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called The Ordinary,” he said.

“The trivial and trite are intertwined with the amazing and unfathomable, but never at the cost of contradiction. If you have never before fantasized about the strangers you see on a bus, you begin doing so after having read Alice Munro.”

Englund also praised Munro’s ability to convey “the tranquility of the outer world” in her stories.

“If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later, in one of her short stories, you will come face to face with yourself; this is an encounter that always leaves you shaken and often changed, but never crushed.”

After the Nobel win, Munro said she planned to stick to an earlier vow to retire from writing.

The prestigious prize was fitting finale to her illustrious career, she agreed.

“I don’t think I need to wait around for anything else. It’s quite amazing.

“I just mainly feel that I’m tired and I want to live a different sort of life, a much more relaxed sort of life.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024.

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