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Sword fights, bootlegging, chair caning, foot injuries, car crashes, and Canada. No, it's not just another day in the office at Shmoop, it's Alice Munro's 2004 short story, "Passion." The story is about a woman named Grace and her memory of a life-changing summer. Why was it life changing? We'll get into that later. Just keep in mind that it involves sword fights—intellectual sword fights, that is.
If you're the type of person who enjoys comparing famous authors to NBA basketball players, you might say Alice Munro is the Lebron James of North American literature. She's really good. Like, really good. Everyone says so. She's won lots of awards, including the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. She writes short stories and is often referred to as a "master of the form" by those people who write little complimentary blurbs on book covers.
She's also Canadian, which has nothing to do with Lebron James, and might not be as impressive as winning the Nobel Prize or being widely-regarded as a master of something, but it's necessary information for that inevitable life moment when someone—the cute barista, a prospective employer, Joel the plumber—will ask, "What are your thoughts on Alice Munro?" And you'll be able to say, "I think she's a master of the short story, and that she's Canadian and a Nobel Prize winner." While your prospective employer might be impressed by that answer, he or she will be even more impressed if you can actually talk about some of Munro's writing—maybe cite a specific story or book that you've read, and whether you love it or hate it or feel indifferent about it, and why.
When it comes to Alice Munro there are a lot of books and stories to choose from, but we recommend "Passion" as a good starting point. Why? Remember, two simple words—sword fights.
"Passion" is one of those stories that's kind of about everything—okay thematically it's about everything…if you want to split hairs, there's no soccer, polar bears, or cable knit sweaters in the story, among other things. The story is about being young and having all sorts of expectations for how your life should go. See what we mean when we say it's about everything? Life is a pretty broad topic for a short story to tackle.
The main character, Grace, is struggling against these expectations. You might be familiar with some of them. They fit into a script we're supposed to follow that involves having fun when you're a kid, then getting older and having to worry about serious things like college, jobs, and romance…and that's it. You've arrived. All you have to do now is work until you retire, at which point you can have fun like when you were a kid, except you'll be older and not quite as spry.
Sounds fun, right? (It's okay if it doesn't.) Regardless of what you think about the script, it can be very hard to deviate from it. Lots of people have tried. They've written books and songs about it. They've wandered into the Alaskan wilderness or tried to live life primarily on the road, going from experience to experience, trying to find the best possible way to enjoy the ride.
But what if we can't escape the script? And what if our expectations of the wonderful things it promises—romance, enjoyment, and a sense of peace with yourself and your place in the world—inevitably lead to disappointment? Is it possible to live within the script but still find a way to enjoy life and be happy? We don't know. But we do know these questions are worth thinking about, and "Passion" is all about these questions. Reading it will make you the Lebron James of thinking about stuff, a master of contemplation.
For the Hidden Chair Caner in All of Us
Just in case "Passion" piqued your interest, here is a site dedicated to chair caning. You'll see all sorts of free chair caning advice, step-by-step instructions on how to cane, an encouraging quotation from Saint Francis of Assisi, and a short video that features hole-to-hole chair caning. Exciting!
Ottawa Valley Tourism Board
While reading "Passion" did you find yourself thinking about how much you'd like to visit the Ottawa Valley? We know we certainly did. If you did too, then you might enjoy this website for the "Whitewater Capital of Canada." Or you can just look at the pretty pictures and get some extra context for the story's setting.
Alice Munro…The Website
Do you really like Alice Munro? The people who put together this website do too.
This 2013 movie, starring Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce, is an adaptation of Alice Munro's short story, "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage."
Away From Her
Sarah Polley adapted Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" for this 2006 movie, which at no point involves a bear coming over a mountain.
The New Yorker Interview
Munro talks about her latest story collection, which deals with a lot of the same issues as "Passion," like, you know, life.
Paris Review Interview
The Paris Review is kind of a big deal, and this interview with Munro is really good.
Conversation with Diana Athill
Want to see a brief conversation in which a Nobel Prize-winning author talks about why she wanted to write, what inspires her, and whether or not people change or gain wisdom as they get older? If the answer is "yes," then this might be a good video to watch.
1979 CBC Interview
Banning books is no fun. Why do certain books get banned? Who decides what's acceptable or unacceptable? In this interview a young Alice Munro gives some thought-provoking answers to these questions. Check out that beige.
Nobel Prize Interview
Due to health reasons, Alice Munro couldn't fly to Sweden to accept her award. But she was nice enough to sit down and give this remote video interview instead.
Lauren Groff reads "Axis"
The New Yorker has this really cool podcast in which an author reads and talks about a favorite story by another author. Here's Lauren Groff reading Alice Munro's "Axis."
A Short Reading
Nancy Beatty reads an excerpt from a story included in Munro's Nobel Prize-winning collection, Dear Life.
Sporting her signature (and awesome) headband.
The prettiness cannot be denied.
Ottawa Valley Map
In case you'd like to look for some familiar names.