“The local high school just boasted a government certified rate of illiteracy at over one quarter for their Grade 10s. Not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to birth a Nobel laureate.”

Canadian author Alice Munro has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, the first time the award has been given to a Canadian woman and only the 13th time it has been given to a Canadian. Good for her!

The author, a true master of the short story, released her latest collection Dear Life in 2012. She is best known for her short stories detailing the lives of small-town Canadian women.

The closest she has come to a novel is her 1971 collection The Lives of Girls and Women, a collection of short stories centered around the same character (presumably modeled after Munro herself in her youth) growing up in Wingham, Ontario.

As someone who grew up in Wingham it always pleases me to see the accolades given to the town’s literary regent Munro, and even the successes author Andrew Kaufman and CBC’s Bob McDonald, a few other notable Winghamites, always make me pause and smile. Half of me happy because someone with my background has done so well for themselves, and half of me happy to see that someone made it out of that godforsaken town — a place where homophobia, sexism, and ignorance are virtues to be celebrated.

The local high school just boasted a government certified rate of illiteracy at over one quarter for their Grade 10s. Not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to birth a Nobel laureate.

Munro’s stories in The Lives of Girls and Women are character focused but the hallmarks of the town I grew up in were easy to spot, even more than half a century since it is set. Everything about the book rang true, the sexual misconduct of the townsfolk, the unfriendly church-goers, the miserable second nature of everyone — and still it carried the enveloping sense that the protagonist is a part of the fabric of the town, it is where she belongs, whether she wants to or not.

Munro didn’t make very many friends in Wingham by writing that book (I’d heard a story that on the week of it’s release the embarrassed went down to the book store at the corner of John and Josephine streets and bought up as many copies as they could to keep them out of the hands of others) but years later they honoured her with a park in her name along the town’s main street.

It’s no wonder so few people go beyond the borders of that wretched, ignorant township. Even when they hate you they lay claim to a part of your success.

The few escapees I’ve met on the outside all seem to have a similar view: Wingham is this bizarre place where right is wrong and wrong is right.

Wingham is the kind of place where Grade 12 formal is held in a barn with an explicit warning of “no fags allowed” just in case one might assume that formal should be enjoyed by all.

Wingham is the kind of place where a person of authority drunk driving into and killing a young person, also drunk driving, isn’t that big of a deal.

Wingham is the kind of place where a pedophile teacher’s aide can reside unchecked by the near-useless Wingham Police for a number of years despite everyone knowing he touches kids and a steady stream of complaints, that is, until he moves a few townships over and is immediately arrested by the OPP for his long history of sexual impropriety.

Wingham is a crippled community, and while Munro did a fantastic job describing the town as it was in decades past, there are countless more stories to be told about everything upside down in that place. The town’s obsession with quashing everything that deviates from its cruel norms and praising stupidity is not the recipe for a world renown author, and Munro deserves all the accolades in the world for overcoming the nature of this town.

Munro lives down the road in Clinton now, a span of 35 kilometers that can make a world of difference.

I’m sure that in the days to come the folks at Wingham’s town hall will come up with a way to celebrate a Nobel laureate in their midst, but anyone who ever breathed the air in Wingham will tell you that any small scrap of accomplishment, any one little bit of achievement to come out of that town did not happen because of it — it happened in spite of it.




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Follow Travis at @TravMyers.


1 Comment

  1. ChanginTimes Reply

    Myers has juxtaposed Nobel Prize winner Munro with the back water town in which she spent some of her growing up years. Indeed, it would seem that creativity in its various art forms are not as stifled in such back waters as one might think. Certainly, Munro’s back water ensured her a lifetime of material to work with.

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