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Pluck, Luck and Destiny : Alice Munro's short story characters live on in the mind long after the tale has been told : OPEN SECRETS, By Alice Munro (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 294 pp.)

October 30, 1994|Susan Heeger | Susan Heeger is a free-lance writer

Long after her books end, Alice Munro's characters live on in the mind like cranky, cheek-pinching relatives from childhood. Once you've read her, you can't forget Flo from the 1977 story collection, "The Beggar Maid"--stubborn, fiercely proud, with her work-scuffed knees, flowered aprons and penchant for warning people to "get out of my road"? Then there's Addie Jordan, a.k.a. Princess Ida, from "Lives of Girls and Women" (1971), dashing around the Canadian hinterlands trying to sell encyclopedias to poor farmers.

In Munro's stunning new collection, "Open Secrets," one woman describes another as "not the easiest in the world, but you can't help admiring her." She might be talking about the book's entire cast.

Independent, impulsive, longing for comfort and ritual but drawn to danger, they dump husbands, boyfriends and small-time lives on whims. Whatever regrets they have, they're proud of their own gumption. However low they feel, they heed their own preposterous visions (as when Jesus visits one scrappy polio victim in her iron lung and scolds, "You've got to get back up to bat, Mary").

What they share is a particularly well-developed sense of how pluck and luck join forces to shape destiny. Lucky accidents are a recurrent theme in Munro's stories, especially for penniless, provincial girls from towns like Carstairs, Ontario, the scene of many tales in the new book. Salvation from a life of drudgery may come in the form of a wealthy man or an exotic trip or simply a job in another town. But more important than any opportunity are the guts to seize it, to engage in a search for meaning instead of settling for, as one Munro character puts it, "flimsy choices, arbitrary days."

Extremely helpful to the search is imagination, another quality the beleaguered women of the Canadian outback have in spades. Their capacity for envisioning other lives comes largely from their habit of storytelling, which is as central to their survival as breathing. Over coffee, over drinks, in shops, kitchens and hospital rooms, person to person and via letter, their tale-telling draws them close and helps them understand their lot. As they air their own and their neighbors' "secrets," they diffuse the horrors of a rough existence and inspire each other with fresh hope.

Munro's narrative strategy is built on the gathering force of multiple stories--tales told and retold in different voices, anecdotes offered in the context of others. In "The Albanian Virgin," a "movie plot" recounted to the story's narrator by a restless, bedridden woman turns out to be a version of the woman's own colorful history, which, in turn, plays against the unresolved drama of the narrator's life. "A Wilderness Station" tells a tale of fratricide that is passed through generations of a family via news accounts, letters and repeated tellings until it loses its sting and is remembered as an "accident."

Sometimes, Munro's tale-tellers report facts: the antics of a wayward spouse; an overheard conversation; the last sighting of a lost girl. Often, they relate mysteries and merely hold them up for an audience to consider. The story "Carried Away," for example, asks the question: Why would a soldier already engaged to a girl back home start a mail-order romance with a woman he's never met? Why, after the war ends, would he not contact the woman again but instead haunt her workplace surreptitiously for the rest of his life?

"Who knows what really happened?" a father writes to his daughter late in Munro's book. Does it matter? he might add.

Munro's stories show "truth" to be a shifting, subjective thing. But since a tale is always anchored by a teller's feelings and perceptions, any yarn contains a bit of truth. Over the course of "Open Secrets," these bits add up. Layers of secrecy and deception are pulled away, revealing more and more about people and their community--and the conflicts between the two.

Individual and communal needs are often at war in Munro's fiction, where small towns are variously seen as prisons and shelters of the human spirit. Carstairs is no exception. There, doctors' wives lord it over farmers' wives, and the Douds, who own the factory, are second only to God. Still, those who've bolted return with lumps in their throats, bemoaning changes in the place they still regard as home.

As always, Munro captures the exact pitch of this tiny world--its solidity and its oppressiveness, its local heroes and its characters. Opening one of her stories is like dropping in on a country kitchen jammed with people who know each other. The reminiscences fly thick and fast, leaping decades, switching speakers; it takes a while to get your bearings. When the tale ends, it's hard to let it go, and return to a world where stories matter so much less.

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