The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Dear Alice


On Tuesday, as I watched Alice Munro’s daughter, Jenny, accept the Nobel Prize in Literature on behalf of her mother, I found myself in tears. I’ve witnessed literary prizes being awarded for years with only superficial emotions—but this was different.

Alice Munro is the only author I’ve ever written a fan letter to. It was the first one I’d written since I was 12 and penned a brief missive to Shaun Cassidy from the Hardy Boys TV show. (“I like your hair,” I’d told him.) Shaun never wrote back, but Alice did.

I’d felt compelled to write to Alice because I’d been in a period of mourning for my parents, who had both passed away many years before; these bouts of grief came on sporadically, almost like the flu, and during these times Alice’s stories were all I wanted to read. (I’m calling her Alice since for the 20 years that I’ve read her stories, the connection I’ve felt to her work has seemed so intimate that I always think of her by her first name.) In my letter, I told her how much her work had meant to me, and how, after my parents’ deaths, her books gave me solace and comfort; I’d never read another writer who articulated the mixed feelings surrounding loss and grief so truthfully, and my copies of her books had been read so many times that they looked like they’d been laundered in the washing machine. In her response, she thanked me for my letter and wrote, “Quite a few people find my work (it seems) ‘good but depressing.’ I myself find most ‘cheerful’ or ‘positive’ stuff depressing, but I could be a bit screwed up.”

I placed the note beside my favorite short story, “Nettles,” in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage on my Alice shelf, which looks like the collection of a mad scholar—it holds hardcovers and paperbacks of the same title (some signed, some unsigned, with her New Yorker stories torn from the magazine and tucked beside the book versions, for comparison), her biography, her daughter’s memoir about her, a tape cassette of a 1987 interview I’d bought off eBay, a 1994 copy of her Paris Review interview, and audio editions of many of her titles, because I catch new meanings and intricacies when I hear her stories read aloud. It’s a kind of devotion that I don’t have for any other writer.

Book love is such a strange and mysterious kind of love—what is it that makes us fall for certain authors so deeply? What is it about their work that changes our lives and shapes who we are?

Throughout my life, lines from her stories have repeated in my head—in my twenties, I reread “Mischief” after a man failed to return a call: “The suffering. What was it? It was all a waste, it reflected no credit. An entirely dishonorable grief. All mashed pride and ridiculed fantasy. It was as if she had taken a hammer and deliberately smashed her big toe.”

I reread “Simon’s Luck” after every breakup: “So much female touching is asking (this is what she would have learned, or learned again, from him); women’s tenderness is greedy, their sensuality is dishonest. She would lie there wishing she had some plain defect, something her shame could curl around and protect…His body would not be in question, it never would be; he would be the one who condemned and forgave and how could she ever know if he would forgive her again? Come here, he could tell her, or go away.”

In my thirties, I reread “Miles City, Montana” as I tried to write while raising young children: “In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide—sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to.”

And through all these years I’ve felt “the bitter lump of love” the narrator of “Friend of My Youth” feels when thinking about her mother decades after her death, a lump of love that intensified while rereading “The Progress of Love,” “The Moons of Jupiter,” “Family Furnishings,” and “Dear Life.” For me, these stories are an antidote to the way death and grief are treated in American culture: as something to be gotten over quickly and forgotten. In Alice’s stories, grief is ever-present, waxing and waning and changing, embraced in its messiness and complexity, and faced and explored, again and again, over the course of one’s entire life.

In 50 years, Alice has gone from being the subject of a 1961 Vancouver Sun article called “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories” to winning the Nobel—only the 13th woman ever to do so—an achievement that’s also a win for women everywhere, for it shows that “quiet” short stories about women’s lives shouldn’t be considered small in scale or scope, but are equal in value to epic novels about the traditional domains and experiences of men.

In the story “Nettles,” the narrator articulates a unique kind of love: “Love that was not usable, that knew its place. (Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out.) Not risking a thing yet staying alive as a sweet trickle, an underground resource.”

This Alice love is a sweet trickle, an underground resource. Her stories have allowed me to lift a veil and see layers of meaning in my life that I’d never have given voice to on my own. They’ve helped me accept the thousand different aspects of every experience, the darkness and humor, the messy, inevitable, complicated, always changing, never-easy truths. They’ve let me woo the seemingly unreachable, complicated, and incomprehensible parts of myself, and I can’t imagine a world without them.

Congratulations, Alice.

Margo Rabb’s writing has been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Slate, One Story, Best New American Voices, New Stories from the South, and elsewhere. She is the author of the novel Cures for Heartbreak, and her new novel, Kissing in America, will be published by HarperCollins in 2015. More from this author →