Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Born in Alice Munro country

My own roots go back to where Nobel Prize winner calls home

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My birthplace seems an unlikely spot for a Nobel Prize winner in literature to call home.

I was born in Clinton, Ont., and grew up on a nearby farm, a short distance from where Alice Munro wrote many of the stories that have earned her the world's most prestigious prize for literature, which was formally awarded today in Stockholm, without Munro in attendance.

Munro moved to Clinton with her husband in the 1970s, about the time when parent groups pressured the local school board into removing Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, a classic work of Canadian literature, from the official curricula in the county's high schools.

It's a community of about 3,000 people, pretty much the same population it has had since the Second World War, nestled in the rolling farmland of Huron County. My 90-year-old mother is in a care home there. My niece got married there last summer in the United Church.

It's rural, conservative and religious. It's not the sort of place where you expect to find an internationally acclaimed writer credited with redefining the modern short story.

In the 1970s, I once took a copy of Mordecai Richler's novel Cocksure to school and had the book confiscated by the principal, who sternly told our class not to read such smut. Unsaid, but understood, was his message Jewish writers from Montreal were dangerous and evil.

Luckily, some teachers were more enlightened. A high school English teacher pushed the boundaries and offered us some of Munro's early writing.

As a farm kid, it was a revelation both that a famous Canadian writer could live in our midst and that she would write about familiar people and places, accurately describing what happens in a sometimes odd and backward place.

Her fictional towns like Jubilee and Hanratty could be any of the rural towns around where I grew up in southwestern Ontario; a region that may now forever be known as "Alice Munro country."

Many of her characters have exactly the same kind of farm and small-town life I had. She often portrays characters who are outsiders in their own communities, unsatisfied with small-town life yet attracted to it, which pretty much sums up how I felt at the time.

I moved away, like so many rural kids as they passed into adulthood.

Munro, interestingly, moved back. She had left southwestern Ontario in the 1950s and ended up in Victoria. But, married to her second husband, she returned in the 1970s to help look after his older mother, then never left.

Celebrated elsewhere and published in the New Yorker and around the world, Munro leads a low-key, private life in Clinton. She has rarely allowed journalists to visit her there and usually travelled to Toronto or elsewhere for her infrequent interviews.

She has said nobody knows who she is in Clinton, an overstatement certainly. But there's no doubt many people in the town have not read her work. Those who have would never make a fuss over her. It's one of the charms of the place.

Munro described the area to the New York Times last summer as "the most interesting place in the world," somewhere she finds "endlessly fascinating."

Clinton is known for a few things. It is where radar was developed in Canada during the Second World War at a training base for the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was the location of the notorious killing of 12-year-old Lynne Harper in 1959, which led to Stephen Truscott being convicted of murder and sentenced to execution at age 14. (The sentence was commuted and Truscott was finally cleared 48 years later).

Now it will be known as where Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature, lived.


Bob Cox is the Free Press publisher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2013 A2


Updated on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 6:55 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds timeline, adds slideshow

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.


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