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Monday, September 21, 2015

"Dear Life" by Alice Munro Set to Music

  “Dear Life” is the titular story of Alice Munro’s 2012 collection.  Actually, it is not a story so much as a memoir.  It first appeared in The New Yorker in the September 19, 2011, issue as a “Personal History” with the subtitle “A childhood visitation.”  You can read it at:(

In Dear Life, the piece is the last entry, one of the four prefaced with the following short note:  “The final four works in this book are not quite stories.  They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.  I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my life” (255).  The four pieces give snapshots of the narrator’s childhood in a small Canadian town and evoke a girl’s coming of age — her efforts to articulate an identity of her own. 

As was noted in The New York Times, “These ‘not quite stories’ do not force their contents into tidy shapes, like some of the “real” stories in this volume; instead they have a flexible, organic shape, opening out to encompass Ms. Munro’s unsentimental thoughts on life and art and storytelling”  (

In regard to Munro’s thoughts about life and fiction, it is interesting that the “Dear Life” in the short story collection omits the last paragraph of The New Yorker’s version:  “When my mother was dying, she got out of the hospital somehow, at night, and wandered around town until someone who didn’t know her at all spotted her and took her in. If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true” ( Truth is stranger than fiction?

Earlier in the piece Munro makes another statement about life versus fiction:  “Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life” (307).  A reviewer in The Guardian noted, “One is stopped short by "only life" with its implication that fiction can be – and do – more.  Roly Grain reminds us how Munro's short stories work.  She has a gift for introducing characters who seem walk-on parts but who redirect and transform narrative. . . . If Roly Grain had not been inconveniently real, she would have handed him a story and let him run with it” (

When asked about how she came to choose the title “Dear Life,” Munro said, “Those words are very wonderful to me because I heard them when I was a child, and they had all kinds of meaning. ‘Oh, for dear life!’ would just mean that you were kind of overwhelmed with all that had been required of you.  I liked the contrast between that and the words ‘dear life,’ which are maybe a joyful resignation, but when you say ‘dear’—the word—it doesn’t bring up sadness. It brings up something precious” (  She seems to view her childhood experiences as precious; certainly her recollections of life in southwestern Ontario were crucial to her writing. 

Now a young Canadian composer, Zosha Di Castri, has set “Dear Life” to music.  The concert entitled “Echoes of Childhood” will premiere at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre later this week (