America's Alice Munro by Laura Raphael

I was thrilled when the transcendent, luminous, extraordinary short story writer Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month. Not only is Munro being recognized for her exceptional achievement in this often-belittled (certainly misunderstood) literary form, which is a win for all short-story readers the world over, but she is a woman, and women writers have only received Nobel love 12 times before Munro. (She is the lucky 13th.)

It was also an excuse to re-read some of my favorite Munro stories… but only on my personal library’s shelves, since most of the Tulsa City-County Library’s copies of Alice Munro collections are checked out. (Which is thrilling!)

While you wait for your copy of Too Much Happiness, Runaway, or (my favorite) Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, may I suggest another female short story writer who has been called “America’s Alice Munro”?

Jean Thompson shares many qualities with the transcendent, luminous, extraordinary Munro – including that she, too, is a transcendent, luminous, extraordinary short story writer. Her subjects are frequently regular, flawed people (just as in Munro) who are trying to get through life as best they can, bumbling and fumbling as they try to make connections with others but often falling short.

What Munro and Thompson share the most, however, is a keen observation of people’s often-ugly, frequently-wrong behaviors and feelings, combined with a gentle authorial grace that does not excuse them of their wrongs but accepts them as the price of being human. In her stories and novels, Thompson gives us many moments of small misunderstandings, larger tragedies, and general problems, but she also delivers touching, but earned, moments of acceptance, laughter, and love: characters finally understanding each other, or finding ways to ask for forgiveness – and be forgiven.

Above it all is Jean Thompson’s wry yet generous narration, which invites readers to participate in the same grace she exhibits: not excusing the pain inflicted by her characters, but understanding and accepting them as what makes us all human.

One thing that Alice Munro and “America’s Alice Munro,” Jean Thompson, do NOT share is that Thompson has turned from short stories to writing novels – novels that some critics see as connected short stories. Her latest two works, The Year We Left Home and The Humanity Project, are novels-or-maybe-connected-short-stories.

Read them to meet Alice-Munro-like characters. Read them for the transcendent, luminous, extraordinary beauty of the prose. Read them, and chances are, you will see yourself reflected back, which is the neatest trick of all – one that Alice Munro and Jean Thompson both deliver with expertise.

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