I first read Alice Munro in college, when a friend pressed Lives of Girls and Women on me, saying that I would relate to it. She was right. I loved that book not because I admired it, but because Munro said things about my life at that moment that I hadn't even noticed before. My own life felt larger and more rich because of her life.
But it's not her life -- it's fiction, right? I'd always assumed that there's a strong autobiographical source for much of AM's fiction, if for no other reason than the recurrence of certain motifs: the inappropriate lover, the sick mother, the bourgeois husband. And one other that I might not have noticed if it weren't for the latest story in Harper's: drowning.
"Miles City, Montana" is the big drowning story, with one drowned child in the back story and an near-drowning in the front. There's one in an old story, "Walking on Water," and a sunk car with people in it in a later story. I think there are more. Anyway, enough to make a person wonder, "So... what is it with Alice Munro and drowning?"
You wouldn't ask that of a memoirist -- she would tell you right out, and that would be that. One of the reasons I prefer fiction to memoir is because fiction lets the writer work through variations on a theme. In one story the protagonist is just a witness to a drowning; in another story she's at fault through neglect; in another she's completely to blame.
What really happened? Munro would probably say it doesn't matter, and I guess it doesn't. Knowing wouldn't make me get more out of the stories, or cause me to like them less. Still, wondering about her real life has always been a part of my experience reading AM -- thinking about how what really happened gets turned around and comes out as fiction is endlessly fascinating.