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Alice Munro, Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, chronicler of rural Canada dies at 92

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The great Canadian short story writer and novelist Alice Munro, a 2013 Nobel Prize winner for literature and 2009 Man Booker International Prize for Life Time achievement, has died at the age of 92.

Munro wrote short stories for more than 60 years, that tickle and titillate readers across the globe on account of their naturalism and empathy in character portrait often focusing on life in rural Canada.

According to her family and publisher, she died at her home in Port Hope, Ontario on Monday night.

Often compared to Russian writer Anton Chekhov and the Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges for the enormous insight and compassion buried in the recesses of her stories.

“Alice Munro is a national treasure – a writer of enormous depth, empathy, and humanity whose work is read, admired, and cherished by readers throughout Canada and around the world,” Kristin Cochrane, the CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, said in a statement.

Her first major break-through came in 1968, when her short story collection, Dance of The Happy Shades, about life in the suburbs of western Ontario, won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award. It was the first of three Governor General’s Awards she would win in her lifetime.

Munro has published thirteen collections of stories as well as one novel, Lives of Girls and Women, and two volumes of Selected Stories.

In 1977, the New Yorker magazine published one of Munro’s stories, Royal Beatings, based on punishments she received from her father when she was young. She went on to have a long relationship with the publication.

Munro, the daughter of a fox farmer and a schoolteacher, was born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario. Many of her stories are set in the area and chronicle the region’s people, culture and the way of life.

In her youth, she was named class valedictorian at her high school and received a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London. Munro had the the highest standing in English of any student who applied to the university.

While pursuing higher education, Munro said she spent about half her time on academics and the other half writing.

She has published more than a dozen collections of short stories. In the 1950s and 1960s, her stories were broadcast on the CBC and published in several Canadian periodicals.

Her stories were enormously popular, and widely considered by critics to be without equal, a mixture of ordinary people and extraordinary themes.

She was beloved for her short stories and celebrated the world over.
She was one of few women to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her widely anthologised short stories and her entire literary corpus have inspired countless writers too, and her work leaves an indelible mark on the literary landscape.

Her work is a blend of irony, compassion, humanity and constant search for the ideal in a world enmeshed in imperfections and chaos. She struggles to empathize with her characters as they move through the maze and complexity of rural life, endlessly blending ordinary people with extraordinary themes — womanhood, restlessness, aging — to develop complex characters with the nuance, depth and clarity most writers can only find in the wider confines of a novel.

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In honouring her with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, the Swedish Academy hailed Munro as “master of the contemporary short story,” affirming what her peers, critics and readers had proclaimed for years.

“Alice Munro was one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Her short stories about life, friendship, and human connection left an indelible mark on readers. A proud Canadian, she leaves behind a remarkable legacy,” read a statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday.

“On behalf of the Government of Canada, I offer my condolences to Mrs. Munro’s family, friends, and many fans. Her creativity, compassion, and gift for writing will remain an inspiration for generations.”

Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ont., on July 10, 1931. The eldest child of Robert and Anne Laidlaw, she was raised on what she described as a “collapsing enterprise of a fox and mink farm” in the throes of the Great Depression.

An avid reader by 11, Munro was drawn to the work of literary legends Lucy Maud Montgomery and Charles Dickens. She began “making up stories in her mind” after discovering the works of Alfred Tennyson, according to her official Nobel biography.

 

As the eldest child, Munro took on most of the domestic roles in the household after her mother, who had been a schoolteacher, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Though only 12 or 13, Munro said the work gave her “a sense of responsibility, purpose, being important. It didn’t bother me at all.”

Despite the family challenges, she began writing short stories when she was a teenager. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class in 1949 with a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London.

Her first published story, The Dimensions of a Shadow, appeared in Western’s undergraduate creative writing magazine, Folio, in the spring of 1950. Two more pieces followed, with all three receiving praise for their exploration of the lives of girls and women.

At the university she met and began dating honours history student James Munro. She also noticed Gerald Fremlin, an older student and another contributor to Folio. Laidlaw and Munro married at her parents’ home in Wingham on Dec. 29, 1951. The following year, James gave his wife a typewriter as a 21st birthday present.

The Munros had three daughters — Sheila, Catherine and Jenny — in the early years of their marriage. (Catherine died the same day she was born.) Munro left university when the scholarship money ran out and the family eventually settled in West Vancouver’s Dundarave neighbourhood.

“We had become a cartoon couple, more middle-aged in our twenties than we would be in middle age,” she wrote.

Munro said she devoted her career to the short story medium — regarded by many as notoriously difficult and by others as inferior to the novel — because the demands of marriage and motherhood didn’t allow her the time to complete longer works.

In 1963, the Munros moved to Victoria and opened Munro’s Books on Yates Street. Munro credits the bookstore, which made a “marvellous” $175 on its first day and is still flourishing, as helping her overcome the writer’s block she experienced from her mid-20s to her mid-30s: “The writing ceased to be this all-important thing that I had to prove myself with. The pressure came off.”

“Just as she would shape Munro’s, Munro’s would shape Alice,” the shop wrote in a tribute to its founder. “Jim enjoyed recounting his wife’s urge to write something better than the ‘crappy books’ that sold alongside the store’s more palatable titles.”

Munro’s first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 — two years after she gave birth to her fourth daughter, Andrea.

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After her marriage ended in 1972, Munro moved back to Ontario. She reconnected with Fremlin — whom she’d shared pages with in Folio back at Western — after he deduced from an interview of hers on CBC Radio in 1974 that she was back in Ontario. The pair married and moved to Clinton, Ont., not far from her hometown in Wingham.

Fremlin, a retired geographer and cartographer, was the one to use the office in the couple’s home. Munro opted to write at a tiny desk facing a window overlooking the driveway from the corner of their dining room, according to a 2013 profile.

International recognition came after the New Yorker bought its first Munro story, Royal Beatings, in 1977. Munro nurtured a decades-long publishing relationship with the magazine, cementing the Canadian author’s status with an elite group of contributors who defined the American publication’s celebrated love affair with short fiction.

An unapologetic revisionist, Munro was known to keep reworking stories even after her publisher had sent them back without asking for any changes.

In one instance, she personally paid financial penalties in order to add an entirely new story and change the voice from first to third person after the printing deadline for Who Do You Think You Are? — a collection of short stories that went on to win Munro the Governor General’s Award in 1978.

Munro won a litany of literary honours over the next decades of her career, including two more Governor General’s Awards, two Giller Prizes and the Man Booker International Prize. She also received an honorary degree from her alma mater, Western University — the “only such honour” she ever accepted, the school has said.

In an interview with CBC after her Nobel win, Munro said: “I think my stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories, and I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.”

Munro’s last collection of work, Dear Life, was published in 2012. She introduced the final four stories in its pages, called Finale, as “autobiographical in feeling”, if only partly.

“I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

 

Some of her stories compared life before and after the social revolution of the 1960s.

“Having been born in 1931, I was a little old, but not too old, and women like me after a couple of years were wearing miniskirts and prancing around,” she said.

One well-known story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, was made into the 2006 film Away from Her, starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent.

In 2009, Munro won the Man Booker Prize International Prize for lifetime achievement.

The judges said in a statement at the time: “To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before.”

They added that Munro “brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels”.

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She later won the Nobel Prize in 2013. Previous winners include literary giants such as Rudyard Kipling, Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway.

The Nobel committee called Munro a “master of contemporary short story”.

Munro said in an interview with the Guardian in 2013 that she had been “writing personal stories all my life”.

“Maybe I write stories that people get very involved in, maybe it is the complexity and the lives presented in them,” she told the Guardian in 2013. “I hope they are a good read. I hope they move people.”

Her last collection of stories, Dear Life, was published in 2012. It included a collection of partly-autobiographical stories.

She told the National Post newspaper that Dear Life was special because she’d likely not write anymore.

“Not that I didn’t love writing, but I think you do get to a stage where you sort of think about your life in a different way,” she said.

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