It all started a couple of weeks ago, September 26 to be exact. I was in Goderich visiting my sister Charlotte and doing some research for a travel article on the Lake Huron region for Riding the buses. We were having lunch with Cindy Fisher, tourism coordinator for the county, and she told me about the Alice Munro Writers & Readers Festival that was taking place in Wingham on the weekend.
Quite naturally I asked if Alice was going to be there. After all, this is Alice Munro country and I’ve heard she ‘pops up’ everywhere. Alice was born and raised in Wingham, 48 km from Goderich. She lives in Clinton, which you pass on the road coming from Stratford and a mere 20 km away. She walks the Goderich boardwalk along Lake Huron and dines in its restaurants.
Cindy didn’t think Alice would be at the festival but suggested we go see the Alice Munro Literary Garden in Wingham. There’s no charge to visit, she said, and the museum beside the garden has an exhibit on Alice Munro, although it may not be open.
It’s easy to spot the Alice Munro Literary Garden in the centre of town across from the Town Hall. Alice’s name is part of the metal archway that overlooks the site. In front of the archway is a sculpture of a small girl reading. Two paths meet close to the girl. Look down one path and engraved in stones are the names of books Alice has written. On the other path the engravings are about her awards, among them the Commonwealth Prize, Giller Prize, and Man Booker International Prize. Impressive. There’s a bench at the back of the small perennial garden that’s shaded by a large catalpa tree. A plaque, in the shape of a book, tells us Alice herself opened the garden on July 10, 2002.
The North Huron Museum, with the Alice Munro exhibit, is next to the garden. We’re delighted that it’s open. Inside we find an alcove that’s dedicated to all things Alice. Posters on the wall sum up Alice’s life to 2008: The history of the Laidlaw family in Canada, 1818 – 1930 [she was born Alice Laidlaw]; The early years: Life in Wingham, 1931 – 1948; University and marriage, 1949 – 1957; Leading a double life: Family and writing, 1958 – 1972; Later years: Rebirth and remarriage, 1973 – 2008. You can watch an interview with Alice, look through a scrapbook of magazine articles about Alice.
We get back to Goderich at dinnertime and decide to do take-out—ribs from the Park House near the boardwalk. Charlotte leaves to pick up the order. Guess who is in the restaurant? Why it’s Alice Munro, seated at a corner table with a young man.
You can just imagine our excitement. An Alice Munro sighting! But I wonder if it was really Alice. For starters, I couldn’t imagine Alice Munro eating ribs. “There are more than ribs on the menu,” Charlotte says.
We go on-line and find a recent photo of Alice. “That’s her,” says Charlotte. “That’s the woman in the restaurant.” Below the photo is an announcement. Alice Munro has just won the Toronto Harbourfront Festival prize.
“She was out celebrating,” says Charlotte. I agree. What should we do about it? Go to the restaurant, stare at her, take a photo? No, but we are delighted with our Alice Munro day.
The next morning Charlotte suggests we go find Alice’s house in Clinton. Maybe we’ll find her working in the garden. It will be a natural encounter.
On the way we stop at the Bayfield Village Bookshop, a place Alice is said to frequent. There’s a chalkboard near the entrance of the shop that says tickets to Maude Barlow’s reading are sold out. This is a village that likes to read. A friend of Charlotte’s who lives here, Judith, belongs to three book clubs. Many well-known writers have done readings at the bookshop. I ask Mary Brown, the new owner, if Alice has been by. “Once,” she says, “with members of her family. She signed some books. They sold very quickly.”
We continue on to Clinton. We start our search of Alice’s house in a neighbourhood of beautiful, historic homes. “I bet that’s where Alice lives,” Charlotte says. Her guess is wrong. We drive every street in the village and go back and start again and again. Our guide is a photo of the house that we saw in the North Huron Museum.
Then we spot it. A white house freshly painted. The roof is green and the garden at the back is enclosed, her privacy protected. No one is around. There is no car in the driveway. I take a drive-by photo.
Back in Goderich, we celebrate our success over a glass of wine.
There’s an article in the Globe and Mail this morning suggesting Alice Munro might win the Nobel Prize in Literature. I email it to Charlotte along with the message, “And we know where she lives, ha, ha, ha”.
Charlotte responds: “And we know where she dines. Good luck Alice!”
I send Charlotte an email: “She won! The Nobel Prize! It’s one of the most prestigious prizes in the world! Maybe I need to move the Alice Munro article up.”
Charlotte responds: “Good plan. Are you going to include the rib-restaurant-sighting as it seems she is in B.C. and not Ontario?”
Later I hear that Alice was visiting her daughter in B.C. when she received the call telling her of the award. So maybe she was at the rib restaurant in Goderich on September 26.
No matter. Alice Munro is obviously a much loved, much cherished daughter of Huron County. Go check it out for yourself.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
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