Family Lineage

For the Sunday Salon

There’s nothing like reading about life a mere century or so ago to realize what a soft, feeble, risk-averse lot we have all become. Alice Munro’s collection of family tales, handed down in fragments or retained in memory but elaborated and altered by the dictates of fiction, is oddly fascinating. Particularly the stories from the early generations of her family who settled in Canada. How can we possible conceive of the courage and strength of purpose of those family members who struck out, not just overseas, but into the Canadian wilderness to clear the land for farming, build the first houses, found brand new communities? Munro includes lengthy quotations from the letters and journals her ancestors handed down through the family, and the account of constructing the first shelters in fledgling townships provided oddly hypnotic reading. Two brothers and a cousin, armed with no more than a few cooking utensils and a box of bedclothes (of which the latter had to be left behind en route when the going got too tough) set out on a walk that lasted almost a week to a community of five settlers, where they erected a shanty out of logs and mud, slept on branches of hemlock, and nearly burnt the whole place down when they sited the chimney wrong on their first attempt. Were they bothered? Previous generations were made of much sterner stuff: ‘we expected to have some hardships to endure and we made the best of them we could.’ These people were up against their mortality all the time, but they didn’t cringe in fear from it; they didn’t expect life to be easy or fair or understandable; and when something went wrong (as it so often did with extreme consequences), no one ran about looking for someone else to blame.

 

Even when Munro reaches the era of her own childhood, the difference in the way we live nowadays is notable. Munro was given the belt by her father if she misbehaved, and much as she disliked it, and was convinced that injustice ruled and that at such times her father detested her, she survived without psychological scarring: it was the way things were. ‘If he were alive now I am sure my father would say that I exaggerate, that the humiliation he meant to inflict was not so great, and that my offences were perplexing and whatever other way is there to handle children?’ For parents to intervene strenuously in their children’s behavioural patterns was the norm; by contrast, when it came to neighbours, people kept themselves to themselves. Munro recalls a local family in which it was clear that the brutish husband abused his wife and children. What might nowadays alert the compassionate outsider to ring social services was ‘regarded in fact as a source of interest and entertainment. It might be said – it was said – that nobody had any use for him and that you had to feel sorry for her. But there was a feeling that some people were born to make others miserable and some let themselves in for being made miserable. It was simply destiny and there was nothing to be done about it.’ For all that social history suggests to us that prejudice and discipline were far more ferocious than they are nowadays, and that there was a strong sense of what was normal, and what was not, people were nevertheless allowed to keep their eccentricities in a way that would be considered utterly outlandish to our modern eyes. Is this better or worse? The generation that followed on from those brave-hearted settlers contained one extraordinary family branch of nine brothers and sisters who all lived together in the same house for the extent of their lives, except for one brother who built his own house on land directly opposite and was considered to have broken rank in a way that went beyond the pale. He was ostracized by his siblings and it took five or six years before anyone visited him. The sister who made that visit then moved in with him to keep house until she died. How can it be that one generation will cross an unchartered ocean, whilst another refuses to permit its members to move five steps away? What broke their spirits, or changed their minds about the benefits of travel, freedom or independence?

 

I cannot help but picture the ranks of Alice Munro’s family stretching back into time, and to see the qualities of her ancestors rolling forward in waves. Perhaps every seventh wave contains the adventurous souls, those who want to strike out and away, to make their mark or leave their name inscribed on history’s pages. Perhaps it takes another six generations to settle into the changes, to feel comfortable enough to feel bored or discontent. When I look backwards through the amassed legions of my own family, I envisage a river of genetic inheritance flowing down through the ages, to which all the members have contributed something I might recognize within myself. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side drove ambulances in the war, not wishing to fight, and I can fully identify with that; my grandfather on my father’s side worked with the infirm of mind, and to both of them I ascribe the desire, a kind of moral duty almost, to help people who suffer that I know very well. My grandmother on my mother’s side was an ambitious dreamer; from my mother I inherited (or maybe just learned) the ability to listen properly to others, and her skill in creating neatness and order (only with me it comes out in the compulsion to tidy up messy thought), from my father I get the quiet dedication to complete mastery of whatever subject interests me. What do I add to the genetic mix? The need always to question, to get behind the misleading surface, the conviction that anything can be changed if you set your mind to it, the compulsion to communicate? Only subsequent generations will tell. My son came home from school last week with a certificate of commendation for his work on the ‘buddy’ scheme whereby older children help the younger ones; so one strand of my family inheritance carries on through him at least.

 

For the intrepid traveling gene we have to look to my husband and his family. He was wondering out loud yesterday whether he would ever travel properly again, and as I, imagining his retirement, said I was sure he would, he added that if anything were to happen to me, he would certainly take up traveling. Being of that questioning frame of mind I so recently mentioned, I did wonder what was going to happen to me, so that my husband could go on a lovely long cruise. I pointed out that there would be many household items he would be unable to locate in my absence, and he said, rather touchingly, I thought, ‘All the more reason to have nothing but a few essentials in a rucksack. I couldn’t bear to be somewhere that reminded me I’d lost you.’ And I said, having never even contemplated such a thing before, that if he were not there I would have to find him again by writing him. I would tell his story, all about his family and who he was and of our life together. It would be the very best memorial I could produce. As Alice Munro’s book so rightly reminds us, generations come and go, and we cannot stop the progress of time, but stories last forever.

12 thoughts on “Family Lineage

  1. And what compels some in a family to be the storytellers, the ones who find every detail of family life and history fascinating enough to preserve for posterity? For you are so right – the stories last forever, and hopefully there is one in each family to keep them alive.

    Such a lovely, thoughtful post. You inspire me to reflect on my own family stories, and how they’ve influenced my life. And also to read the rest of the stories in The View from Castle Rock🙂

  2. If Munro can inspire this then she has to go to the top of my list. Pullman would, of course, agree with you about stories. ‘Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.’

  3. I recently heard of Alice Munro, but I have never read anything by her. I love what you have to say…I need to read some of her stuff now. I heard that she was the most under-acknowledged fiction author. Or something like that. I need to read her! Which would you recommend I start out with?

  4. Ravenous – it’s the ones who sit back and are quiet at family gatherings, isn’t it? They’re doing the watching! I think it’s only as you get older, though, that you appreciate more the importance of family history. I’m so looking forward to hearing what you have to say on the Munro as you make your way through it. Ann – that’s a lovely Pullman quotation! I’ve just started Northern Lights, finally! And I’d love to know what you make of Munro. Bethany – hello and welcome! I have to say that this is the first book by her I’ve ever read, and people have been telling me it’s not quite like her other work. I have heard very good things about her last short story collection called Runaway, though, and I’d like to read that myself as well. I’d love to know what you think of her!

  5. I recently started a new book/writing blog after shutting down my own blog (you published my corridor of men in suits), but I’m going by my new name in a more focused blog with no fiction at all which I am keeping private in order to publish off the internet. Anyway, I loved this moving review and reviewed only the title story on my blog. I am not part of the curious circularity circle, but have always found your perspective on books compelling.

    http://ritereading.blogspot.com/2008/03/long-story-short-alice-munros-view-from.html
    Writer Reading: Long Story Short: Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock

  6. I have visited this site on many an occasion now but this post is the 1st one that I have ever commented on.

    Congratulations on such a fine article and site I have found it very helpful and informative – I only wish that there were more out there like this one.

    I never leave empty handed, sometimes I may even be a little disappointed that I may not agree with a post or reply that has been made. But hey! that is life and if every one agreed on the same thing what a boring old world we would live in.

    Keep up the good work and cheers.

  7. We all make stories to make sense of our lives, don’t we? We say such and such a body is or was and then we start to tell a story to back up our statement or claim or impression. Or we go the other way, hear a story about someone and then decide something about them. It’s the only way and it’s surely one of the basic reasons we like stories, not just reading them. How accurate a procedure this is in getting at some kind of truth is another matter, but as individuals using our own limited experiences it’s mostly all we have to go on. It’s a basic strand in reading and a developing of skills in reading the world we face every day. Reading our family’s histories is another strand for those who do it. I also think it’s a reason why mysteries are so very popular and most fiction has a built in requirement to read on, find out, bring us to a conclusion, an enlightenment. It’s probably why we don’t like fiction which short changes us in this aspect. It may be more realistic, but we are left as baffled as in life itself.

  8. Gloria – hello and thank you for your kind comment. I’ve read your review of the Munro and enjoyed it very much indeed, particularly what you say about the ending which struck me as being very true. I’m delighted to know you are still blogging and the very best of luck for your publications. Suzanne – hello and a warm welcome to you! I’m so glad you decided to leave a comment. And if you ever do find yourself with a different opinion, I’d love to hear it. There are so many ways of looking at every single situation and I’m always fascinated by other people’s perspectives. Bookboxed – you’re so right! Stories give us that spurious sense of mastery over a situation, spurious because it can never be the whole truth, but satisfying and comforting nevertheless. And it’s the best we can do under the circumstances!

  9. It’s so fascinating to read about how people lived in the past, especially pioneering type people — I think I’d love Munro’s book. I can’t help but think about how I would respond if I were out there — would I find the courage and ingenuity I needed? Or the stubbornness and strength?

  10. I also loved the pioneering nature of this book. I loved the section about their travails on board ship, although I think that part was largely imagined. However, Munro’s talent is such that which sections were imagined and which not became irrelevant in the wonderful telling.

    Perhaps I’m the sixth generation adventurous soul in my family. Although moving to modern Germany is hardly comparable to moving to the wilds of Canada and having to build your own house with trees you’ve hewn yourself!

  11. Dorothy – I’ll bet you would! You always strike me as a tenacious and adaptable soul. Look back in your gene pool, Dorothy, and I’ll bet you’ll find pioneering types there! Charlotte – oh I don’t know, it must take a fair bit of grit and verve to embark for a country where people knit in class and sentences are like pieces of complex engineering😉 I think you’re an adventurous soul!

  12. What a wonderful post both as review and as reflection on family. You made me think about my family–farmers all until my parent’s generation who both grew up on farms but left to live and work in cities–and oh, the stories both heartbreaking and hilarious. I may not have ever lived on a farm but I still managed to inherit lots of farmer qualities. Thanks for making me smile this evening🙂

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