Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: The Beggar Maid

In honor of Emerging Writers Network's Short Story Month, I'm going to focus my review energy on my favorite short story collections.

Alice Munro needs a glowing review as much as she needs writing advice, but The Beggar Maid, being one of her earlier books, doesn't receive as much attention as her later collections. While her later works are huge, sprawling, lush stories spanning decades, many with her trademark double ending bending time, the stories in Maid are much more focused. Perhaps this is because the stories are linked, so as a whole they follow Rose from her days as a young girl into middle age.

Still evident in this collection is Munro's unique way of viewing the world, the details she includes, the way she phrases things. The bits of paper left behind after Rose's father's death (not a spoiler, this happens on the second page of the collection) detailing "things he had been moved to write down," followed by a list that perfect encapsulates this man in six entries. Or in "Wild Swans," when Rose tries to determine whether the affable old man next to her is surreptitiously molesting her beneath her coat.

The stories all closely follow Rose, though Flo is a predominate character, acting as Rose's foil. For as quiet and shy Rose is, Flo is just as boisterous and unguarded. Seen through Rose's perspective, Flo is almost too much to handle, a constant embarrassment. Munro is better than that though. She's rounded out both characters so much that, even though the stories never come from Flo's point of view, the reader feels as though they know Flo as well as they know Rose.

The Beggar Maid was the first Alice Munro collection I read, assigned in 1996 by an ernest grad student in an intro course. Before reading it, I hadn't realized the potential of the short story, I didn't know the possibilities. This collection changed my writing life. Munro writes about working class people living ordinary lives. These are people I identify with, who I think a lot of people identify with, but who aren't often written about. I read these stories and felt like someone out there got me.

Fans of Alice Munro will appreciate that the entire collection is roughly the same length as four of her short stories now, it can be devoured in one sitting or parceled out one nibble at a time. Newcomers will appreciate the ease with which Munro leads the reader into a story. Writing in a deceptively simple manner.

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