Wingham, population 2,885, lies in North Huron, at the junction of Highways 4 and 86. Its residential streets stay quiet all day, and its main drag draws its blinds in early evening, aside from a grocery store, a bar, and a coffee shop with wireless Internet. Several branches of the Maitland River meet up in town, nearly encircling it like a moat, then spreading south into the rest of the county before emptying into Lake Huron near Goderich. Wingham is said to have been discovered by an Irish immigrant named Farley who built a raft in Bodmin, twenty-five kilometres downstream, and floated it north. That happened around 1840.
Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw on a farm outside town in 1931. She lived there until departing in 1949 for the University of Western Ontario in nearby London. Newly married to a native of Oakville, she moved first to Vancouver and then Victoria, not returning to live in Ontario until 1973, and never again residing in her hometown. But over the course of more than a dozen published books across four decades, she has remained fiercely loyal to an archetypal Ontario community and a timeless rural county — to, in effect, an imagined version of Wingham and Huron. Readers both local and international “know” these places, possibly better than any other Canadian literary landscape. Munro is, after all, the author called the “best fiction writer now working in North America” and the “equal of Chekhov, de Maupassant, and the Flaubert of the Trois Contes” by critics in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, respectively.
Inside the North Huron Museum is an exhibit accompanied by a booklet titled Alice Munro, the Town of Wingham, and the Lives of Girls and Women. Next door is the Alice Munro Literary Garden, a former parking lot converted into a public space in 2002. The small garden features a bower, flower beds, and, nestled in a stone path, marble slabs bearing the titles of her books, including Lives of Girls and Women, the 1971 story cycle about the coming of age of Del Jordan, a budding writer who seeks a less stifling identity than the one promised by her small-town upbringing. Of the two remaining empty slabs, one will soon be engraved with Too Much Happiness, the story collection published this month. Given that Munro is seventy-eight and has claimed to be nearing the end of her career as a writer, the last stone may remain blank.
Visitors to the garden, or those hunting for the Laidlaw farm, aren’t drawn to Wingham, per se. Their fascination is with another town, called, variously, Jubilee, Hanratty, or Carstairs. The farm they want to lay eyes on belonged to another girl as well, one assigned different names in different stories. “We in no way attempt to suggest that Munro’s Jubilee is actually Wingham,” the authors of the pamphlet declare. “Despite some physical similarities, Jubilee is clearly a fictitious town existing only in Munro’s created world.”
Literary tourism is replete with such disclaimers. They speak to the power of fiction to feel at once like real life and something more perfect and eternal. Whether it is for William Faulkner’s home county of Lafayette, Mississippi, taken to be the Yoknapatawpha of his novels, or Harper Lee’s Monroeville, the presumed Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, literary pilgrims travel to where their favourite authors lived and worked. They may simply be paying homage. They may also be hoping a fleeting experience of the setting that so defined the writer — the view out a study window, the bird call on a favourite walk, familiar local faces and intonations — will further deepen their experience of the books. In the case of an artist like Alice Munro, so powerfully in touch with the interiority of lives that aren’t often the stuff of fiction, the impulse to tour “her” country may be especially strong: a Munro story can alert readers to complex truths about their own hearts, and about feelings for their own landscapes they were scarcely aware of.
Early in her career, Munro herself puzzled out some complex truths about the often strained relationship between authors and their origins. In Lives of Girls and Women, her second book — a manuscript originally titled, not so incidentally, Real Life — her protagonist (and likely alter ego), Del Jordan, reacts at times with shame or contempt toward Jubilee and its people. After inheriting an incomplete regional history that had been an uncle’s passion, for example, Del, who believes that “the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece,” buries the pages in a cardboard box in the cellar. She feels no remorse when they are eventually destroyed by a flood.
Lives ends, however, in an epiphany that serves as a kind of Munro manifesto, with the dawning of Del’s awareness that out of even the humblest, most seemingly stultifying circustances can come great literature. The work she produces can be, she realizes, about a girl like her, in a town like Jubilee. Fiction, in other words, that is its own created world but is still rooted, paradoxically, in the place she wants to escape.
For my exploration of Alice Munro country, I have the Self-Guided Tour pamphlet and a road map of the county; the manuscript of Too Much Happiness; a copy of The View from Castle Rock, Munro’s 2006 fictionalization of her early life and the lives of her ancestors; and Robert Thacker’s biography Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives. Thacker, a professor of Canadian literature at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, has offered to be available by cellphone to serve as guide. The biographer — who mentions to me that Munro paid visits to the childhood homes of authors Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner, and that she revisited Wingham with him for his book — recommended in advance that I make two specific excursions.
One is the walk Alice Laidlaw took each day from Lower Town into Wingham for school. The second is the drive south from the junction of Highways 4 and 86 through Blyth and then over to Goderich, either via the bridge at Auburn or northwest on Highway 8 at Clinton. Travelling what Thacker calls Munro’s “postage stamp of the earth” will take an hour by car. Tucked within the locale are the generalized settings for most of her great stories, along with the people, histories, and topographies essential to her literary imagination. He quotes a Munro remark about this tiny patch: “This ordinary place is sufficient, everything here touchable and mysterious.”
And of course, Huron County still contains Alice Munro herself. For much of the year, she lives in Clinton with her second husband, Gerry Fremlin, a retired geographer she met at Western. “I use bits of what is real,” she wrote years ago, during a period when her fiction was causing upset in Wingham, “in the sense of being really there and really happening in the world, as most people see it, and I transform it into something that is really there and really happening in my story.” More recently, she has written of “the countryside that we think we know so well and that is always springing some sort of surprise on us.” Doug Gibson, her long-time editor and publisher, has advised me that if the publicity-shy Munro agrees to talk, I should invite her to lunch at Bailey’s in Goderich. Reserve ahead, he said, and they’ll ensure her table is ready. It’s where she is most comfortable; where other diners know her, and the county code, enough not to make a fuss.
The Alice Laidlaw walk to school, charted in The View from Castle Rock, originates at the farm where her father, Robert, raised foxes to support his wife and three children. The modest red-brick house still stands at the end of present-day West Street, as do the outbuildings from her father’s business. The unbroken vistas of fields, along with another branch of the Maitland, are largely unchanged from seventy years ago. The Laidlaw farm sat on high ground near the western end of Lower Town Road (now Turnberry Street), an unpaved country lane so fundamental to Munro’s formation — she did her thinking along there, she told Thacker — that a photo of it graces the back jacket of the biography. A family living on Lower Town Road, the Cruickshanks, was no less important to her; the adolescent, already an apprentice writer of poems and stories, babysat for them, and entertained the children with her imagined tales. The family is gone, but that farm stands as well.