LITERARY LANDMARKS: Munro's Books, 1108 Government Street, Victoria

In a National Geographic book called Destinations of a Lifetime (2016), Munro's Books of Victoria was listed third in a Top Ten list of bookstores around the world. The entry reads, "In 1963, exactly a half century before she won the Nobel Prize in literature, Alice Munro co-founded a bookstore with her then husband, Jim. Munro's has since moved into a magnificent, neoclassical former bank, decorated with gorgeous fabrics, in Old Town, Victoria, British Columbia." The couple's daughter Sheila Munro, also an author, worked in the family's store.

The former Royal Bank building on Government Street is the third location for Munro's Books. Fifth on the National Geographic list was Powell's Books in Portland. Other countries with bookstores on the list were Greece, Mexico, Argentina, France, Australia, China and Belgium.

After her divorce in 1972, Alice Munro married former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer/cartographer, in 1976. Jim Munro married textile artist Carole Sabiston in 1977, and they remained in the Munro family's Rockland house in Victoria. Gerald Fremlin died on April 17, 2013. Jim Munro was appointed to the Order of Canada soon after Alice Munro won her Nobel Prize in 2013.

Sheila Munro was raised in West Vancouver and Victoria. With her mother's encouragement and consent, Sheila Munro, while mainly living in Powell River, published an astute study of their family dynamics and her mother's books, Lives of Mothers and Daughters (2001).

Joan Givner provided the following review of Lives of Mothers and Daughters in B.C. BookWorld.


Sheila Munro's memoir Lives of Mothers & Daughters (M&S $34.95) is not without intimate revelations.

Alice Munro had a child that lived 14 hours. Jim Munro, now owner of Munro's Books in Victoria, first saw his bride-to-be as an 'apple-cheeked country girl.' "I have an excellent figure," she once told her eldest daughter, "but don't tell anyone I told you that." During the 1950s Alice Munro loathed Vancouver, had panic attacks, feared she would stop breathing and had to see every movie that Elizabeth Taylor was in.

Sheila Munro suggests her mother was a 'a watcher' rather than 'a keeper.' "She didn't want to be a regular mother," says Jim Munro. She once told an interviewer, "I'm just so terribly glad that I had my children when I did. I'm terribly grateful that I had them. Yet, I have to realize, I probably wouldn't have had them if I had the choice."

For literati, there are literary insights galore. Alice Munro wrote Lives of Girls and Women in a laundry room; she once tried to write a novel called The Norwegian or Death of a White Fox; and Jim Munro was the one who urged her to take a West Vancouver writing space--and found it for her--resulting in 'The Office' in which a husband is portrayed as being less than supportive.

But this stuff is secondary. In her Daughter-Nearest-not-Mommie-Dearest memoir, Sheila Munro of Powell River has finally escaped from her brilliant mother's shadow. In Lives of Mothers and Daughters Sheila Munro has turned the tables, she has made her mother into a character in her own story.

"She is the gold standard by which everything else is measured, " writes Sheila Munro "... So unassailable is the truth of her fiction that sometimes I even feel as though I'm living inside an Alice Munro story... There was something a little shameful about it, as if for her I wanted to be the perfect audience and the ideal friend."

As a mother of two and an exquisite, fair-minded writer in her own right, Sheila Munro has escaped that feeling of inferiority that chronically undercut her confidence. She has done so with her mother's co-operation, and even her mother's babysitting. And she's done it none too soon.

Alice Munro is one of Canada's best loved writers with an expertise in the short story that has been compared to Chekhov's. Lives Of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro is a hybrid form--part memoir and part biography--in which her daughter, Sheila Munro, gives the family history, explains the genesis of many stories, and describes Alice Munro in her roles as daughter, mother, and author.

Sheila Munro refers to Virginia Woolf's famous comment that killing "The Angel in the House" is a prerequisite of women's writing. Woolf, speaking metaphorically, was counseling the woman writer to reject the culturally endorsed model of femininity that includes being charming, nurturing, and ready to put her family's needs before her own. Woolf's own mother embodied that ideal, and it was not lost on critics that her phrase implied the repudiation of the person along with the ideal.

As a teenager, Alice Munro reached the same conclusion as Woolf, but for different reasons. Her mother was afflicted with Parkinson's disease, which both exacerbated her difficult temperament and imposed the heavy burden of housekeeping on her daughter. Munro learned an early lesson in distancing herself emotionally and physically in order to survive. To have remained close would have denied her a life of her own.

Munro's marriage took her from Ontario to Vancouver and her return visits were infrequent, even when her mother was dying. The fiction shows such distancing came at a painful cost, for she grapples time after time with the phantom of the mother.

If marriage brought certain freedoms, it also presented new emotional and physical demands. These included trying to balance writing with the needs of small children, a husband (even a supportive one) and social commitments. Although a newspaper headline at the time brightly proclaimed "Housewife Finds Time to Write Stories," the truth was otherwise. Munro's frustrations were so acute that she developed alarming physical symptoms:

"After a time she stopped writing altogether and then she developed an ulcer...She started having panic attacks, and she began suffering from a bizarre anxiety disorder where she was actually afraid she would stop breathing, she literally couldn't trust that one breath would lead to another, and she was prescribed tranquillizers."

Nevertheless, the early conditioning in self-preservation served her well. Even with her children, Munro maintained a remoteness that safeguarded that inner core-the writing self. She has described her self-protectiveness quite harshly as the secretiveness of someone leading a "double life." Yet the phenomenon is not unusual. Katherine Anne Porter, encumbered neither by mother nor children, spoke of needing to develop a severity of rejection she did not know she was capable of.

Munro eventually regained both her health and her creativity, buoyed by the steady success of her work. In the 60s nationalism affected literary criteria, and Munro's fidelity in depicting rural Ontario found favour with Robert Weaver of the CBC's Anthology. At the sophisticated New Yorker magazine, that same world was valued for different reasons. It had the exotic appeal of Eudora Welty's rural Mississippi or Isaac Bashevis Singer's Krochmalna Street.

With growing acceptance, however, came more complications. As Porter observed "There is a trap lying just ahead and all short story writers know what it is--The Novel." Munro resisted publishers' efforts to draw her into that trap. She also resisted the temptation to squander herself on book tours and other public appearances:

"...she said the danger was not that she would do badly in all the interviews and performances, what was distressing was how easy it was to become good at it, to become glib, and to cease to have any authentic feeling to write about."

In this, her resolve was strengthened not only by her instincts for self-preservation, but by the austere Presbyterian culture of her youth with its disapproval of public display. An inner voice always censored her by whispering: "Who does she think she is?" The same voice still prevents her from volunteering, even to her own daughter, that she has received an award or published a story.

As a consequence, she won international acclaim without any self-advertisement and without incurring hostility or envy. Even those (of both sexes) who tend to dump on women writers, interpreted her "severity of rejection" as the cherished female virtue of modesty. They sometimes used her as a club with which to reproach her less charming, more vocal and assertive sisters. At a recent short story conference she was proclaimed
"A National Treasure."

And therein lies the paradox at the centre of this book. Alice Munro, who successfully fought off Woolf's bogey, reconfigured herself as the Angel in the House of Canadian literature. As such, she became a formidable figure as a literary foremother and as an actual mother.

The biographical portrait of Alice Munro alternates with another story--the narrator's need to come to terms with such a figure. Because Sheila Munro herself is the mother of small children, she writes with retrospective sympathy of the maternal remoteness she experienced as a child. She understands both the reason for it and the cost. Moreover, the withholding mother of her childhood evolved into the dearest of friends:

"More than anything else in my life I looked forward to those meetings with her...I'd see her coming up the street in her leather pants, maybe some tight turtleneck, something dramatic...and I'd be in a state of breathless anticipation...Our conversations were intense, intimate, far-ranging. We shared everything, our love lives, our friendships, the books we were reading, the movies we'd seen, clothes, hair, face lifts, literary gossip, witnesses to the follies, vanities and self-deceptions of other people's lives."

Yet the daughter is perceptive enough to acknowledge the sinister aspect of this relationship. As an aspiring writer, following in the footsteps of Alice Munro is a complex fate.

For example, the response of one friend to whom Sheila showed her work was to say to her mother, "Oh Alice, you should be the one writing this. Imagine what YOU could do with it." Such invidious comparisons whether felt internally or expressed openly, were crushing.

Her reaction was considerably more complicated when she recognized herself in her mother's fictional characters, depicted with such skill that she felt defined by those characters. At times she seemed to be living in a story by Alice Munro.

In her mid-forties, Woolf tried to exorcise her mother by making her a character in the fictional masterpiece, To The Lighthouse. Sheila Munro, also in her forties, has produced a portrait of her mother that will be valuable both to writers and students of literature. One can only hope that it will be equally valuable to Sheila Munro's self-definition as a writer.


Lives Of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro (M&S 2001; Union Square Press, 2008)

[BCBW 2008]