We can find ourselves, like Rose; The Beggar Maid, Stories of Flo and Rose, by Alice Munro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. $8.95.
This could be considered a collection of short stories that is a novel, or a novel that is a collection of short stories. The duality of the work is implicit in its title.
Munro's main character in all the stories is Rose, who can be described in simple terms as a girl who grows up on the wrong side of the tracks and makes it big. But "The Beggar Maid" is not simple fiction. While the immediate gratification inherent in the short story form is here, most of its disappointments are not.
In her chosen form, Munro has room to give complex personalities to even her most minor characters. Rose's father, to instance, dies early in the stories, but his memory remains, like a minor strain in music, to haunt the book. He is an off-stage poet, an other-worldly, lonely man who is given to near-prophetic mutterings and the jotting down of marvelous notes on scraps of paper: "Ate new potatoes 25th June. Record. Dark Day, 1880's, nothing supernatural. Clouds of ash from forest fires. Aug. 16, 1938. Giant thunderstorm in evng. Lightning str. Pres. Church, Turberry Twp. Will of God? Scald strawberries to remove acid. All things are alive. Spinoza."
Rose's father seems to be the flash of brilliance that she, for all her searching, never finds. In these 10 stories, we see Rose taken from a poverty-stricken childhood and willful adolescence through a destructive, wealthy marriage and, inevitably, toward uncertain middle-age and sure divorce. Munro is not content to leave Rose forever in limbo as a witty child whom anyone can like (as in the early story, "Royal Beatings"), and she won't let usm leave Rose there, either. With the compassion, fortitude, and loyalty of a mother, Munro sticks with Rose through marriage, child- bearing, and divorce, never excusing her excesses nor abetting her attempts at escape.
The second most important character in the book is Rose's stepmother, Flo. On the surface, Rose and Flo are very different. Rose uses her brains to become a "scholarship girl" so that she can get out of West Hanratty; Flo, on the other hand, is a street-smart lady who can tell a lot of stories, who gets around.
But if Rose, as a teen-ager, is anxious to get away from the house in West Hanratty and from Flo, it is only because she thinks they keep her down. Later, she will think more kindly, will know that there was something remarkable to prickly Flo.
There are problems with the book -- vast jumps in space and time often leave the reader with a kind of literary jet-lag. Also, some of the stories would not stand up well on their own. But Munro has the talent to carry it off -- presenting us with a few format that succeeds.