I daresay most of us who are Americans can trace our ancestry to a brave group of souls who decide to journey from their homes and strike out for life in some New World. Alice Munroe has identified this group in her own heritage, and based her latest collection of short stories around their experience. In The View from Castle Rock (on discussion this month at A Curious Singularity) the O’Phaup’s of Ettrick, Scotland, have boarded ship en masse to seek their fortune in Canada West.
Like a sepia photograph come to life, the reader becomes acquainted with each member of the family in turn. Munroe paints a rather grim picture of the O’Phaup’s and their life aboard ship. The patriarch, Old James, preaches endlessly to anyone who will listen, about his own grand ancestry, bemoaning the fact that this new land “can be nothing to me other than the place I will die.” His eldest son Andrew, along with his resigned and bitter wife Agnes (who gives birth to their second child at sea, a distinction their daughter will carry literally to her grave) are preparing to take their place as heads of the family in Nova Scotia. The group also includes Andrew’s siblings, Mary, a dwarf who has been deemed fit for nothing except minding young James, and Walter, a bookish young man who keeps a journal and develops a friendship with a wealthy but mortally ill young girl who is traveling with her father.
Munroe is an expert at creating rich, fully developed characters in a short span of time. Although The View from Castle Rock is rather long as short stories go, its task – chronicling a journey of several months – is massive, and Munroe fulfills it quite ably. She paints an unsentimental portrait of life aboard ship, and the ways of country folk who seem resigned to a life of hardship. When Agnes is asked what she will “do” in Canada West, her thoughts underscore this attitude.
“It seemed to her the silliest question. She shakes her head – what can she say? She will wash and sew and cook and almost certainly suckle more children. Where that will be does not much matter. It will be in a house, and not a fine one.”
One almost wonders why people with such a despairing outlook even bother to make this perilous and life altering journey. Perhaps the answer is provided in the very first paragraph, when a younger James takes at 10 year old Andrew to Edinburgh Castle where they climb onto a shelf of rock and peer across the “silvery stretch of water” toward a “pale green and greyish blue stretch of land, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.”
America, they suppose, that far off place where “every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.”
“God grant that one day you will see it closer,” a more hopeful James tells his young son, “and I will myself, if I live.”
Even at his young age, Andrew “has an idea there is something wrong with what his father is saying, but he was not well enough acquainted with geography to know” exactly what that is.
Perhaps it is just that blissful, almost innocent, ignorance which allowed these brave (or foolhardy) travelers to make their legendary journeys. For knowing what lies ahead in any brave new world we set out to conquer might well displace the courage required to embark on the voyage.
The View From Castle Rock, like all of Munroe’s stories, is masterfully written, heartfelt, insightful, and keenly evocative of time and place. Reading it has certainly set me thinking about my own ancestors, and their voyage across the big water into a new life.