So many books to talk about! Including my favourites from 2014 and what’s currently in my stacks and my reading log.
My love letter to short fiction begins on February 16, following a review of Dionne Brand’s recent novel, Love Enough. (She is one of my MRE authors.)
Talk of five collections and, then, revisiting the last stories in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (Comfort, Nettles, Post and Beam, What Is Remembered, Queenie, and The Bear Came Over the Mountain).
Discussion of The View from Castle Rock begins on Saturday March 7th, with one story each Saturday. The schedule is here, as the Alice Munro Reading Project nears finish. (Only Too Much Happiness remains.) You’re welcome to join in, whether for a single story or for the whole collection.
How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
Whether and how a girl rode a bicycle mattered a great deal in the 1950s in southwestern Ontario, for the young Alice Munro.
2006; Vintage, 2007
“We lived just beyond the town limits, so if I showed up riding a bicycle—and particularly this bicycle—it would put me in the category of such girls. Those who wore women’s oxford shoes and lisle stockings and rolled their hair.”
What does it mean? To be such a girl? To wear oxfords? To roll your hair?
Such was the stuff of being a girl, being a woman. These details hold great significance.
And, yet, they might be completely misleading. Particularly if donned as a distraction.
“Or it might not have been a disguise, but just one of the entirely disjointed and dissimilar personalities I seemed to be made up of.”
Some girls were top drawer.
Other girls were not.
While some were more top drawer, others were less top drawer.
And what does that say about girls who chose to associate with either group.
“Salvation Army people were even less top drawer than the girls I was with.”
Some women, like Mirim Alpin, opted out.
Perhaps like those who eeked out an existence apart from either town or country, Miriam inhabited a different state: other.
” A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?”
Perhaps she insisted on her own set of standards, untraditional and in-between.
“She liked horses better than she liked people. She would have been married by now if she could have married a horse.”
Russell found a niche in Miriam’s world and, at least for a time, the young Alice believed she might carve out a place for herself in Russell’s world.
But it was, unquestionably, a world very different from hers.
“There were no bread-and-butter plates. You put your slice of bread on the oilcloth or on the side of your big plate. And you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread before the pie was set down on it.”
This is about porcelain but it’s more about custom and status, about whether a girl accustomed to bread-and-butter plates will mind the oilcloth, the crumbs.
The young Alice has ideas about such things. Also about love, and about lust and passion. Some of these ideas (many of them?) came from the books that she read.
“The Sun Is My Undoing. Gone with the Wind. The Robe. Sleep in Peace. My Son, My Son. Wuthering Heights. The Last Days of Pompeii. The selection did not reflect any particular taste, and in fact my parents often could not say how a certain book came to be there—whether it had been bought or borrowed or whether somebody had left it behind.”
Ironically, these stories educate her as a girl, but they also offer her an escape, when reality juts up against imagination.
“Even then I didn’t settle myself in a chair to be comfortable but continued to sit hunched on the stool, filling my mind with one sentence after another, slamming them into my head just so I would not have to think about what had happened.”
This story is the one which I remember most clearly from my first reading of this collection, perhaps because it so solidly confronts the question of romantic disappointment, as do many of the stories which I consider my favourites in her fiction.
I imagine that they began with the scenes described in “Lying under the Apple Tree”, with bread-and-butter plates and oxford shoes.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the seventh story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Hired Girl”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
For readers familiar with Alice Munro’s most recent collection, Dear Life, the title of this story will immediately recall “Night”, which she described as being “not quite” a story about her relationship with her father.
“Night” is part of a group of four tales, which she feels are “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life”.
And, yet, here is “Fathers”, which seems to declare it is the quintessential “not-quite story” about fathering in her oeuvre, appearing in a work said to be rooted in the “truth of a life”.
The story begins, however, with describing father not-her-own: Bunt Newcombe.
Well, technically, his house is described. In unflattering terms. And in this way we, as readers, gain an understanding of the man.
“(Though the house, like the man himself, had a look of bad temper. There were dark-green blinds pulled most of the way, or all the way, down on the windows, no curtains visible, and a scar along the front wall where the porch had been torn away. The front door which must at one time have opened onto that porch now opened three feet above weeds and rubble.)”
Carrying on the theme of town and country, from “Working for a Living”, the young Alice makes reference to other divisions of privilege as well, in discussing her relationship (is it a friendship?) with one of Bunt’s daughters.
“The first two years that Dahlia was at high school and I was still at public school we must have walked the same route, though we would not have walked together—it was not done, high school and public school students walking together.”
Dahlia’s relationship with her father is fraught. Bunt is bad tempereed, scarred and scarring, abusive to others and to himself.
“I kept thinking about whether she could really kill her father. I had a strange idea that she was too young to do that—as if killing somebody was like driving a car or voting or getting married, you had to be a certain age to manage it.”
How vulnerable is Dahlia truly? In some respects, terribly. But she is also afforded a kind of agency in this story. Even as the fates of other women, also vulnerable, albeit in different ways, are considered.
“Also the old women left on their own. Mrs. Currie. Mrs. Horne. Bessie Stewart.
Mrs. Currie raised dogs who raced about barking insanely all day in a wire pen, and at night were taken inside her house which was partly built into the bank of a hill, and must have been very dark and smelly. Mrs. Horne raised flowers, and her tiny house and yard in the summer were like an embroidery sampler—clematis vines, rose of Sharon, every sort of rose and phlox and delphinium. Bessie Stewart dressed smartly and went uptown in the afternoons to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee in the Paragon Restaurant. Though unmarried, she was said to have a Friend.”
Vulnerability and shame are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable for the young Alice.
“Living out at the end of that road as I did, and being easily embarrassed, yet a show-off, as I improbably was, I could never stand up for anybody who was being humiliated. I could never rise above a feeling of relief that it was not me.”
She had discovered, however, a way of negotiating troublesome territory, which masked her true feelings and allegiances.
“I had mastered a deadpan, even demure style that could make people laugh even when they thought they shouldn’t and that made it hard to tell whether I was innocent or malicious.”
But this is not all the protection that she needs. Her disguise does not solve the problems which simmer beneath the deadpan, even demure, surface.
“My mother said that it was a shame, what a man like that had made of his daughter.
It seems strange to me now that we could conduct this conversation so easily, without its seeming ever to enter our heads that my father had beaten me, at times, and that I had screamed out not that I wanted to kill him, but that I wanted to die.”
Readers familiar with “Royal Beatings” will realize that young Alice’s pain lives on, as did Rose’s: “”like a boiled egg…with the shell left on”.
Even peeling away the layer of shell, in order to read a single story, simply reminds us that the truth more likely resides in a concatenation of stories.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the sixth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Lying Under the Apple Tree”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Oh, the overwhelming allure.
Past Orange Prize nominees
So many of us have seemingly endless older books on our TBRs.
Sometimes these are tightly defined (spreadsheeted phenomena, like this Virago project of mine) whereas others are loosely conceived (“I’m going to read more Victorian potboilers”).
But, despite this, more recently published books are a persistant distraction.
Even though I snapped a photo of my February reads and acknowledged that the most recently published book in my stacks was a 1951 Gabrielle Roy novel, I knew my days of backlisted reading were threatened by the furor surrounding various spring events.
And I did read some newer books in March, like the Canada Reads contender, Jocelyne Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down (Translated by Rhonda Mullins). This slim and accomplished tale managed to last until the third day of the debates, even though there is little that we would not rather think about than dying old (except, perhaps, dying young, and even that, if it’s in the context of a John Green story, can be dressed as entertainment).
And the Birds Rained Down was published in 2011 and became the most recently published book in my reading log for this year until…
I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. Both were tremendously entertaining and solidly written, and they have been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize, a prizelist I have followed since its earliest days, when one had to hope that such announcements would appear in a newspaper the next morning.
And, so, with the announcement of that longlist, I was propelled to the library hold lists once more, eager to track down the titles I hadn’t heard of, wondering how many of the longlisted books I could read before the prize is announced in June.
Well, quite simply, I could read all of them. But, another question is, what would go unread if I did?
The simplest answer is that all the books that have been sitting untouched on my TBR for years would continue to go unread.
But I could gobble Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Laline Paul’s The Bees (both of which I wanted to read before they were listed for this prize). Along with one of my personal MRE (Must-Read-Everything) authors, who appears on this year’s list (Sarah Waters, with The Paying Guests) and those writers’ books whose works I have enjoyed for many years (for instance, Ali Smith and Anne Tyler). I have no doubt that, an April spent in their company would be worthwhile indeed.
And, yet, the same could certainly be said of the books and writers in the picture I’ve snapped of another list, a longlist of sorts, a sampling of nominees from previous years which I have yet to read. Andrea Levy, too, is one of my MRE authors, but I’ve yet to make time to read Small Island. And even though you couldn’t shut me up about Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods a couple of years ago, The Last Samurai is as yellowed inside as its outside, having sat neglected on my bookshelf for about fifteen years.
So I have read some of this year’s 20 nominees for the Women’s Fiction Prize, and I am currently reading Xiaolu Guo’s I Am China, but I am also reading Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk, which was longlisted for the prize in 2002. Whether the coming reading weeks contain more of this year’s nominees or more of the past nominees remains to be seen, but not necessarily because I am distracted by this year’s list (but, of course, I am: you know that) but also because I am also distracted by other backlisted reading projects.
Freshly pulled from the R shelf
A straightforward one is the stack of David Adams Richards novels, which I first snatched from the shelf last summer, when I was reading Crimes Against My Brother, a memorable but difficult read from my 2014.
Because he is one of those writers who populate their works in such a way that a character whom readers meet in one book might resurface in another later book, I was particularly keen to read more of his novels. And the only book of his which I had read previously was Nights Below Station Street.
I would have waffled on that statement even just a week ago. Because my copy of it has such a beautiful winter’s evening cover illustration, for years I have confused Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace with the only David Adams Richards novel that I had actually read before Crimes Against My Brother.
Perhaps even while reading Nights Below Station Street, I believed that I was reading Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace. (This kind of thing happens. I just realized that Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg are two different actors. Confusion can persist. uninterrupted, for years.)
And, yet, when I reached for Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace — ostensibly for a reread — I realized that it was Nights Below Station Street that needed rereading and, there, in the first few pages of these novels, I was reminded why, for characters do, indeed, recur and families populate the page in a suitably messy and sprawled fashion as they populate a tightly-knit community like the Miramichi.
There is no sensible reason for my muddlement of Richards’ novels. I can never recall which ones I actually own and which I have seen so many times on the shelves of libraries and bookstores that I believe I own copies. And the titles are individually beautiful but collectively blurred. So I wanted to read Mercy among the Children (because one of its characters appears in last year’s novel) but I have only copies of Brokenhearted and Meagre stories instead.
When, if I sit down instead with this year’s Women’s Fiction Prizelist, will I ever sort out such details?
And then there is the matter of my Once Upon a Time reading. Even online you can view my overly-ambitious reading plans from past years (2013 and 2012, for instance) and see how often some of the same books appear on multiple lists, with the best of intentions but never realized.
Of course I am inclined to stack an unreasonable number of books at arm’s length to peruse for a reading event, but some of my reading lists for OUAT are long even according to my own inflated standards of reading-list-ness.
Planning for OUAT IX
When will I finally get to Monica Furlong’s series, which only had two books in it when I first put it on my reading list? When will that happen, if I stop to invstigate Patricia Ferguson now (for I see she has been nominated for the Women’s Fiction previously, too) or sandwich in Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief (because, oh, I did love her novel The Wilderness enough to buy a hardcover after I had read a copy of it from the library)?
Some of the books on this list have been on my shelves, unread, for twenty-some-odd years.
And, yet, the new and shiny are seemingly irresistible.
Perhaps that is, in some cases, for good reason.
I finally read Walter Wangerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow this year, which had been on my shelves for 25 years (and made repeat appearances on my OUAT lists) and I didn’t enjoy it half as much as I thought I would. (I do like a good animal story, but I should have guessed that a Christian allegory would complicate my response on those grounds.)
I simply avoid reading the books on my own shelves because I have had, for so long, the habit of choosing other books instead.
Of the 32 books I’ve read this year so far, 26 have been pulled from my own shelves, with an average publication date of 1988, many having been unread for a decade — or two. (Compared to 9 of the first 32 books read last year, 2 in that segment of 2013’s reading, 7 in 2012 and 6 in 2011.)
I was eyeing Terry Pratchett’s novels as a teenager (only because the covers were playful and stood out dramatically in the science-fiction and fantasy sections I loved to browse), but I have yet to finish The Color of Magic. And even though I did begin it (for perhaps the fifth time) earlier in March, I will have to begin again, because once again I have gotten off on the wrong foot with it. (I can’t explain it: the turtles and elephants just don’t line up for me.)
Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks landed on my shelf because it was part of a bookclub discussion in 1995 and it, too, remains unread. Which hasn’t stopped me from adding 5 of her other books to my TBR — the list, not my shelves — and, in the process of investigating that statistic, I added a sixth book to my EmmaBullTBR, the first in a series which has more than ten installments in it (here’s hoping that, if I ever do get to reading the first, that I do not enjoy it) and was reminded that the epistolary novel she co-wrote is nearly 600 pages long.
But, I think I should rush to read these recent nominees.
When do I imagine reading the books pictured here?
Perhaps After Before (another Women’s Fiction Prize nominee).
Or maybe I just need to figure out How to Be Both readers at the same time.
Just how serious is your library habit?
Just how hard would it be for you to make a change?
This Alice Munro story might serve as a sixteen-page synposis for why some high-school students came to hate the idea of reading Canadian authors.
McClelland & Stewart, 2006
If you weren’t raised on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books?
If you weren’t an obsessive listener to weekly episodes of Winter Without Salt read aloud by your third-grade teacher?
You might not want to know whether it’s better to build a brick chuimney in the centre of a settler’s home or to position it at one end.
You might not care how long it took to travel between the communities of Shakespeare and Stratford in southwestern Ontario (a distance covered in about 15 minutes in a car nowadays).
But there’s something which fascuinates me about the layers with which a home can be constructed, literally and metaphorically, as one moves from foundations to furnishings.
And even more interesting is the human layer of strife and resentment which Munro captures in this pioneer tale.
Didn’t you wonder what happened when there weren’t enough men to join together for a barn-raising?
Did you adjust your plans to make a smaller barn? Or wait until the settlement grew to the size which would support (literally) a greater number of beams?
What happened when a stranger was required to hoist a joist?
In “The Wilds of Morris Township”, engaging strangers in business previously confined to familial exchanges of labour is a thorny matter.
And expecting your female relatives to serve potatoes to men they hadn’t grown up with? Beyond the pale.
These are the kinds of complications which emerge in this story, alongside the question of the kinds of day labour one could find in the Blythe area in the mid-1800s (which might be less interesting for some readers, especially those whose ancestors did not make a journey similiar to Munro’s).
Although the locus of this collection is a particular set of family members, the focus of this story feels like setting more than characterization, mainly because the process of establishing a home in this time and place required a particularly intense relationship between man and land.
Mind you, the people for whom this countryside was/is a homeland, the native dwellers, are afforded only a marginalized presence in this chronicle, represented by Becky (whose father was a white man) in the last story. These Laidlaws are settlers with rights to land (no mention of or — likely — thought of treaties) and plans to populate, who viewed this land as their future homeland.
But within their comfortable status of wrested privilege and ownership, there is a seemingly imposible amount of work to be done to establish roots in this new territory.
It’s no wonder there is more talk of plaster than of pleasure: these men built and sealed while the women prepared the food which would fuel the next labourious chores and swept the makeshift floors.
In this atmosphere of weariness, one man dreams of something more: a two-storey house. He stands out, as much of a mythic figure, perhaps, as the collection’s first Ettrick man, Will O’ Phaup, in this “new” land.
With this tale, the core characters exist in the memory of the author’s father: these are folks whose existence can be traced through memories and impressions as well as through documents and diaries.
Whether or not this affects the reader’s degree of engagement likely depends upon the degree of interest inspired by details revolving around shingles and planing, but there is also the matter of a mysterious packet left on a doorstop on Hallowe’en.
Who takes up house together is a scandalous matter, too, in the author’s fiction. As is a man’s understanding more than a woman about what lies beyond her innocent understanding of a neighbour’s judgement on an intimate relationship. The issue of one’s wanting a two-storey house where a single floor would do. Thwarting an older family member’s expectations. An unexpected death in the wilderness.
“The Wilds of Morris County”: not an untouched wilderness after all.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Working for a Living”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
The Laidlaws have left the Ettrick Valley in Scotland behind, that parish with “no advantages”, but the family members also have left behind “long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections” which have inspired Alice Munro to narrate the experiences of her ancestors.
McClelland & Stewart, 2006
But what readers of her fiction recognize is that what is left unsaid in an Alice Munro narrative is as important as any overt commentary; in fact, sometimes the unsaid is of paramount importance.
So what do we, as readers, make of a declarative and deliberate omission? How do we silently cast that in contrast with what is drawn for us on the page?
“And that became the way the surviving brothers spoke of him until the day they died, and the way their children spoke of him. Poor Will. His own sons, naturally, did not call him anything but Father, though they too, in time, may have felt a pall, of sadness and fatedness, that hung around any mention of his name. Mary almost never spoke of him, and how she felt about him became nobody’s business but her own.”
Mary’s feelings are nobody’s business but her own. This could be a comment on the absence of the female experience from the pages of history. Presumably the majority of these ancestral letter-writers were male, their verbosity the fodder for fiction and women’s silences the impetus for imagination.
But here, in the narrative, Alice Munro chooses to keep Mary’s feelings private. They are not the business of we readers.
This story of frontier life might have been something like Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1988) or Kaye Gibbons’ On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998), planting the female experience at the heart of the narrative.
From the author of Lives of Girls and Women, this would not have been unexpected. And, indeed, “A Wilderness Station” suggests that “Illinois” might have been told differently, with Mary’s experiences at the heart of the story.
But “Illinois” sits Mary at the periphery. She has written to “the brothers in Ontario — what else could she do? — and in the late spring when the roads were dry and the crops were planted Andrew arrived with a team of oxen and a cart, to carry her and her children and their goods back to Esquesing”.
There, in the “what else could she do?” lies Mary’s story, in all of its silence. (And it joins the list of questioning titles, like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “What Do You Want to Know For?”) She is a passenger, an attendee; she does not inhabit the narrative on her own terms, only rides along between harvest phases.
What does drive the narrative of this story is, in the literal sense, Andrew who drives the cart and, in a metaphorical sense her young son, Jamie, whose escapades are presented from the beginning of the story, when she finds him having done what shouldn’t’ve been done with his father’s coat and tin box.
Ironically some other female characters drive specific aspects of the narrative in unexpected and creative ways. The two young girls recall the spirited and problematic energy of characters like Karin in “Rich as Stink” and Sabitha in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”, who also struggle with the the desire to impact the world in broader strokes than appear to be within their grasp.
And, then, there is Becky, summarily described and dismissed as “the squaw”, more help to Mary than anybody, Mary says, commenting upon Becky’s father being a white man (perhaps calling upon a near-status that a full-blooded native would not have had in the settlers’ eyes).
But Becky figures largely off-stage in the narrative, her silence complete and resounding; next to her, Mary appears quite the chatterbox. The possibility that Becky might impact greatly upon the family’s decisions to come and go is put forth by a child, who perceives that Becky’s capacity to defend herself against such charges will be ineffectual, but Mary and her boys are already set upon another route. Becky has let her neighbours go: what else could she do.
With “Illinois”, the characters in The View from Castle Rock move into Alice Munro’s proximity, geographically and semantically. These characters are about to establish roots in her home turf and her relationship to the characters can now be summed up in tidy language: the fourth baby making the journey to Upper Canada is her great-grandfather, Thomas. The use of silence may alter throughout the remaining stories as the bulk of archival material increases.
In the meantime, the boys play a game with spoons beneath the bunk, but the writer is just as preoccupied with the characters who are simply watching the game.
These marginalized characters are not positioned in such a way that they can grasp the silver and claim the win, but they are afforded a private power, nobody’s business but their own, even if they leave without saying good-bye.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “The Wilds of Morris Township”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
The title story in this collection follows “No Advantages” closely. It presents Old James the father, Andrew, Walter, and their sister Mary, Andrew’s wife Agnes, and Agnes and Andrew’s son James,”under two years old”, and recounts their experiences from “the harbor of Leith, on the 4th of June, 1818, [when] they set foot on board a ship for the first time in their lives” to travel to Canada.
McClelland & Stewart, 2006
The links between the first two narratives are clear. Readers slip into later generations and prepare to make their home in new lands alongside their representatives, straddling past and present (which is, in Munro’s typically time-bending manner, also the past) comfortably.
“’The other day I was telling you about that Will O’Phaup that was my grandfather but there was more to him than I told you. I did not tell you that he was the last man in Scotland to speak to the fairies. It is certain that I have never heard of any other, in his time or later.’
Walter has been trapped into hearing this story—which he has, of course, heard often before, though not by his father’s telling.”
Oh, yes: the younger generation is keen to break free from the traps, not only of repeated stories (boredom? embarrassment?) but of disappointments associated with times past and places left behind. The older generation is less certain whether this change indicates true progress, feeling more integrally tied to these ancestral tales and lands.
“‘What does it matter to me? It cannot be my home. It can be nothing to me but the land where I will die.’
‘It will be that for all of us,” says Andrew. “But when the time comes we will think of it more as a home.’”
For some, Canada represents a place in which to die, whereas others anticipate making a home there before that time comes, and others still are caught, unthinking, between these states.
“Young James stands in the midst of them—bright-eyed, fair, and straight. Slightly preening, somewhat wary, unnaturally solemn, as if he has indeed felt descend on him the burden of the future.”
The relationships surrounding James are particularly interesting; his description is succinct but revealing, and it’s possible to read considerable meaning into Munro’s decision to use his character as a focal point. (Perhaps more will be said about this in the spoiler-y comments below.)
These ocean voyages were precarious, long and fraught, and the adjustments required to new living conditions in the “new land” were demanding. The author’s research reveals discomfort and unpleasantness for some, untimely ends for others, en route or following disembarkment.
“Dead of some mishap in the busy streets of York, or of a fever, or dysentery—of any of the ailments, the accidents, that were the common destroyers of little children in his time.”
Occasionally, the thread of genealogical history is pulled taut. Lines from registries and ledgers are sometimes only thinly veiled in fiction.
“Walter married an American girl from Montgomery County in New York State. Eighteen when she married him, thirty-three when she died after the birth of her ninth child. Walter did not marry again, but farmed successfully, educated his sons, speculated in land, and wrote letters to the government complaining about his taxes, also objecting to the township’s participation in a proposed railway—the interest being squandered, he says, for the benefit of capitalists in Britain.”
Nonetheless, there are recognizable Munro-nesses to these stories. Wives comment on husbands’ commitment and understanding. Parents observe their children’s shortcomings and flaws. The world’s boundaries stretch for youngsters who have not travelled beyond Ettrick parish before. And even though the details of women’s lives are less often discernible in the written records of centuries past, the female characters step forward in Munro’s second story.
The ship in “The View from Castle Rock” operates as the train so often does in Alice Munro’s stories (e.g. “To Reach Japan”, “Amundsen”, “Wild Swans”, “Train”). The narrative captures a group of characters in transition, between places and possibilities, promises and losses. And, as is so often the case in her fiction, the shade of a missed opportunity cast across a quiet loneliness.
“Years will pass before she will reappear in his mind. But when she does, he will find that she is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies. Sometimes he will even entertain himself with thoughts of what might have happened, had he taken up the offer. Most secretly, he will imagine a radiant recovery, Nettie’s acquiring a tall and maidenly body, their life together. Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret.”
Whether radiant recoveries or foolish thoughts, ultimately, the endings of these early stories are all known, by descendents and readers alike.
“Those travellers lie buried—all but one of them—in the graveyard of Boston Church, in Esquesing, in Halton County, almost within sight, and well within sound, of Highway 401 north of Milton, which at that spot may be the busiest road in Canada.”
In the meantime, the fictional connections between characters pull readers into the next generation’s memories and dreams, pleating the years between then and now, so that readers are less aware of the characters’ mortality as the pages turn.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Illinois”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
McClelland & Stewart, 2006
The View from Castle Rock was not one of my favourite Alice Munro collections. Although I rushed to read it upon publication, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Runaway. On rereading, I planned a different approach.
In the past, I read the collection simply as another of Alice Munro’s works. I didn’t adjust my expectations when she stated that each of the stories therein is inspired by her family history. Even though she systematically excluded these tales from previous collections, I still expected more of what I had already found there.
She must have anticipated that readers could have difficulty adjusting to this hybridization, for she is careful to explain; but, even the explanation is complex, considering truth served alongside fiction and facts in the context of narrative.
“You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative.”
Ultimately truth, life and history are wedded with fiction, elaboration and narrative. So readers are meant to look down at their feet in the river, set aside the desire to analyze, interrogate and classify; they are instructed to be content with the rush of waters, simply inhabit the channel’s flow.
“With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.”
Perhaps intellectualizing this process would not have resulted in a different experience with this reread. In fact, I began rereading the collection later last year and felt myself spinning towards the same arc of disappointment. I set aside the book and wondered if the next attempt would be a repeat.
This passage in the foreword swept me beyond my resistance, when I began again. But not because of what it offered about the protagonists, some of which I recalled from last year’s stalled reread.
“Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.”
It was the last phrase which pulled me in: “as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be”. For one person’s truth is personal: not untruthful but subjective. So, we meet a narrator and spend time with her, and we think we have some basic understanding of her marriage, which we know unravelled, sometime between ‘then’ and ‘now’, but just a glimpse of the once-husband in an airport, the briefest appearance on the stage of the story, and we realize just how much we do not know, about his truth. And so many stories display this pattern, a later realization of depth miscalculated.
When first approaching this reread, my view was focussed solidly on these dozen stories in The View from Castle Rock; in my desire to revision the work as something-other-than-a-Munro-collection to make room for what seemed to be stark differences, I overlooked that one could say the same thing about many of the other stories. Consider “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” and “Tricks”, in “Spaceships Have Landed“ and “The Jack Randa Hotel”: their characters’ stories were “as truthful as [their] notion of the past can ever be”.
I remembered the author’s notes included regarding the autobiographical elements of stories like “Chaddeleys and Flemings” (“Connection”, and “The Stone in the Field) in The Moons of Jupiter (1982) and the final sequence of Dear Life (2012) (which includes “The Eye”, “Night”, “Voices” and “Dear Life”).
This fiction/non-fiction question is a thorny one. As Margaret Atwood said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” last autumn: “When you’re writing fiction everybody thinks you’re secretly writing about real people and things but if you write an autobiography they think you’re lying…as one does.”
Munro’s first story “No Advantages” pays particular attention to the truth of the lives of the men of Ettrick Parish, in the county of Selkirk, Scotland in the late 18th century, on the “high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope”.
Of considerable importance are Will O’Phaup, James Hogg and James Laidlaw. But of central importance is the idea of storytelling itself: the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves.
The author, as narrator, literally inserts herself into the narrative as well, describing her experience of visiting the parish: “Nevertheless the valley disappointed me the first time I saw it. Places are apt to do that when you’ve set them up in your imagination.”
For of course what we set up in our imaginations is of primary concern. This roots our connection to everyone else’s imagined tales. And, as such, the tales of the Ettrick men are often surprisingly familiar.
“Here is a classic story. I heard versions of it—with different names, different feats—when I was a child growing up in Huron County, in Ontario. A stranger arrives full of fame, bragging of his abilities, and is beaten by the local champion, a simple-hearted fellow who is not even interested in a reward.”
[And, as an aside, the following passage from the opening story, vividly recalls the opening scene of Michael Crummey’s Sweetland as well, as though it, too, is but a version. This is a long passage but it reveals the early stories’ tone, and I’m including it not only for all those Sweetland lovers, but to underscore the pattern of layered meaning which anchors the truths that each of us discovers in fiction, as tale connects to tale.
“As soon as he gets close enough to them he calls out.
But nobody takes any notice. And then again he calls out, but still not one of them turns around or looks towards him. He can see them plain from their backs, all country folks in their plaids and their bonnets, both men and women, and normal-sized, but he cannot get to look at their faces, they stay turned away from him. And they do not look to be hurrying, they are dawdling along and gossiping and chatting and he can hear the noise they make but not quite the words.
So he follows faster and faster and finally he takes to a run, to catch up to them, but no matter how fast he runs he cannot do that—though they are not hurrying at all, they are still just dawdling. And so busy he is, thinking about catching up to them, that it does not occur to him for some while that they are not going homeward at all.”]
There is no end to the stories; The View from Castle Rock stands as evidence. “If such a man becomes famous, of course, it is another story. Alive he is booted out, dead he is welcomed home. After a generation or two, it is another story.”
The collection contains generations of stories. “It would be a mistake to think that everybody believed these stories,” she says, which is another way of saying that at least some did believe these stories, that the set up in these listeners’ imaginations was not a disappointment.
On first reading, I was preoccupied with the sense of these stories being one storyteller’s imagination of generations past, but on this rereading, I am paying more attention to the themes which also resonate in Alice Munro’s other collections.
Take a line like this, for instance: “The past is full of contradictions and complications, perhaps equal to those of the present, though we do not usually think so.” How can one not think of “Chance” and “Soon” or “A Wilderness Station” or “Red Dress-1946”. How many members of one generation have been convinced that their own trials and triumphs were unique to their days? How many of us believe we have a monopoly on contradictions and complications? Are we contemporary readers inherently different from the men of Ettrick parish?
And so, my first approach to this collection as simply another in Munro’s oeuvre had merit, for there are more similarities than I had thought. But so, too, does the idea of expecting a slightly different slant, reading these stories in the context of a group of stories which the author has identified as having more prominent autobiographical elements. The line I am drawing to chart my path is no more definite than Alice Munro’s discussion of truth and narrative, but this second attempt at rereading is proving much more satisfying for me.
Have you read The View from Castle Rock?
Or, do you have it in your TBR?
Have you been reading any other short stories lately?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, the title story.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Many of the themes which resurface in Alice Munro’s fiction play an important role in “Working for a Living”.
2006; Vintage, 2008
One of the first which strikes readers is the question of town versus country, which plays such a predominant role in both Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?
“In those days people in town did generally look upon the people from the country as more apt to be slow-witted, tongue-tied, uncivilized, than themselves, and somewhat more docile in spite of their strength. And farmers saw people who lived in towns as having an easy life and being unlikely to survive in situations calling for fortitude, self-reliance, hard work.”
Examining the different kinds of work which her father did, in her living memory, affords Alice Munro an oppotunity to consider his position in this regard. And to find, strangely, that he straddles the divide.
He does farm — mink and foxes and, later, turkeys — but he also works at the Foundry and, much later, he writes. With the latter in mind, he brings another familiar theme into play, the comforts but also limitations of such presumptions.
Here is a man who manges to embody some of the qualities reserved for farmers as well as those reserved for townsfolk and, then, just to complicate things, he’s more bookish than the average man. For even if men are sometimes afforded the opportunity to be bookish, it is obviously considered surprising that her father would lean in this direction.
“Now—if the woman with the dustballs under the beds had read the heavy books, would she have been forgiven? I don’t believe so. It was women who judged her, and women judged women more harshly than they did men. Also, it must be remembered that my grandfather got his work done first—his woodpiles were orderly and his stable shipshape. In no point of behavior did his reading affect his life. ”
Here, too, is another related-but-not-reliably-aligned matter, this question of different standards for men and women: between and among the sexes, the sets of expectations which confine/protect members.
Complexity is built right in. As delicate as a divide can be, there are individuals who find another way of being, sometimes even more dramatically than her father did.
“A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?
Even here, where men and women mostly took whatever was cut out for them, some men had managed it.”
Just as Rose grew up in a home which straddled the line between town and country (in WDYTYA?), the home described in”Working for a Living” occupies that in-between as well.
“To the east was the town, the church towers and the tower of the Town Hall visible when the leaves were off the trees, and on the mile or so of road between us and the main street there was a gradual thickening of houses, a turning of dirt paths into sidewalks, an appearance of a lone streetlight, so that you might say we were at the town’s farthest edges, though beyond its legal municipal boundaries.”
And even when rules and expectations are rigidly defined, there is often a way to circumvent the well-trodden paths. Behaviour which is considered eccentric in one sphere might be displayed in such a way as to reduce the risk of offense to onlookers.
“For a while, maybe all through the fifties, it was considered eccentric for any girl to be riding a bicycle after she was old enough, say, to wear a brassiere. But to get to the Foundry I could travel on back roads, I didn’t have to go through town.”
McClelland & Stewart, 2006
There is, however, a question, too, of how much can be adequately remembered about times past. It seems likely that one would remember general practices, like whether or not one felt comfortable riding a bicycle after a certain age, but particular details are easily mis-remembered or lost.
Backroads and crossroads might be easily muddled. This is true, too, when the author is considering, in later years, the route that her father travelled on a partiuclar journey when she was a girl, riding as a passenger alongside.
““But why would he go this way to Muskoka?” my husband said. “Wouldn’t he go along No. 9 and then go up on Highway 11?”
He was right. I wondered whether I could have been mistaken. It could have been another store at another crossroads where we bought the gas and the ice cream.”
Perhaps there is no more quintessentially-Munro quality to a work than the spiralizing of time, its intersection with memory and fabrication. A passage, like this one, can contain a variety of pasts and futures, enough to temporarily disorient even a careful reader.
“And my mother must have been looking further into the future, thinking of how she could expand, which other hotels she could try this in, how many more capes and scarves they should get made up next year, and whether this could develop into a year-round business.
She couldn’t have foreseen how soon the Americans were going to get into the war, and how that was going to keep them at home, how gas rationing was going to curtail the resort business. She couldn’t foresee the attack on her own body, the destruction gathering within.”
How trustworthy is memory? How differently might we later look upon things which we accepted, unthinkingly, at some earlier point in our lives? W
ith this in mind, how can we judge which time of our lives is the best?When the men at the foundry discuss this, a variety of answers are entertained. But the father responds with what might be consistently the best answer, a variation on “now”.
“They asked him why.
He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.”
And, yet, in typically Munro-fashion, this man’s story collapses in upon another man’s story, as he reminisces about when he was a boy watching his grandfather.
These nesting stories coallesce to present a perspective which belongs wholly and completely to the author.
And of course she has questions, as we all do, wondering from whence we have come.
“Then he said, not so lightly, ‘You get into things, you know. You sort of don’t realize what you’re getting into.'”
That’s what it’s like, isn’t it. You get into things. And then other things happen. And, really, that’s the whole story.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fifth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Fathers”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
A good ways into the story, readers meet this proclamation: “You never quite knew how such things would turn out. You almost knew, but you could never be sure.”
It is perhaps as true about “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as it is about Grant’s predictions about his relationships with women.
But this story does not have a predictable arc. In fact, its unpredictability is the central tenet of the tale.
So perhaps the reader does come over the mountain to read what she could read, and she must simply accept the view, as it is presented rather than as imagined.
Certainly what Grant gets when he visits Fiona in the nursing home for the first time is not at all expected.
Perhaps he should have known better. After all, Fiona’s dementia has transformed her into the epitome of unpredictability, and the stuff of memory is unpredictable even in a healthy rememberer.
But it’s understandable that while Grant might recognize Fiona’s forgetfulness about what’s in the kitchen cupboards, he wouldn’t expect her to forget her husband of more-than-fifty years.
And it’s easy to see how disorienting it would be to see your wife canoodling with another man, after only thirty days of residing in a nursing home away from her husband.
And meanwhile, Grant has been, to hear him tell it, completely preoccupied by her absence. He has, literally, been counting the days. And he clearly expects that the separation has been just as difficult for Fiona. But at some point, in that thirty days, Fiona simply moved on. She climbed the mountain and found herself another bear.
Ironically, this is not unpredictable from the perspective of the nurses. They are, at best, amused by Grant’s daily calls, over the course of the thirty-day separation (which apparently makes the adjustment process easier for both residents and family members). Some, it is implied, are annoyed. And they speak of these dalliances casually, at best in a distanced fashion and, at worst, cruelly.
Grant is aware enough to be able to temporarily step out of his perspective to imagine another’s point-of-view and, after getting to know one of the nurses better than the rest, remarks upon her capacity to understand his situation.
“To her, Grant and Fiona and Aubrey too must seem lucky. They had got through life without too much going wrong. What they had to suffer now that they were old hardly counted.”
Aubrey: he is the canoodle-er. Or, perhaps, the canoodle-ee, as Grant is reminded, for quite often it is the women (again subverting general expectations) who instigate the intimate encounters between the residents.
In any case, all three of these individuals are suffering, whether that counts for onlookers or not. And, as it turns out, Aubrey is married too, and his wife is struggling with the situation too.
But this question of suffering, it’s complicated. For although readers’ sympathies were immediately engaged on Grant’s behalf, first lonely and then abandoned, readers soon learn that Grant was sequentially unfaithful to Fiona.
(It’s debatable, given the statistics on marital fidelity whether in fact this element of the story is unpredictable, but given the focus on Grant’s seeming devotion in the story’s opening pages, it seems something of a surprise, at least.)
Although Grant persists in the belief that Fiona was unaware of his affairs, there are indications that she was all-too aware, that she suffered the same sense of betrayal and alienation that Grant now suffers, but she had to reconcile his presence-of-mind, his sanity, into the mix.
Time has passed, but whether the scars of these earlier betrayals have healed remains uncertain. Grant and Fiona are approaching the final end, but perhaps they are drawing their own ending in advance, just as Grant describes their attachment to and severence from the series “Are You Being Served?”.
“They had slid into an infatuation with an English comedy about life in a department store and had watched so many reruns that they knew the dialogue by heart. They mourned the disappearance of actors who died in real life or went off to other jobs, then welcomed those same actors back as the characters were born again. They watched the floorwalker’s hair going from black to gray and finally back to black, the cheap sets never changing. But these, too, faded; eventually the sets and the blackest hair faded as if dust from the London streets was getting in under the elevator doors, and there was a sadness about this that seemed to affect Grant and Fiona more than any of the tragedies on Masterpiece Theatre, so they gave up watching before the final end.”
Whether or not one or both of them has given up is a matter for debate. And the story is told from Grant’s perspective so readers can only imagine the dimensions of Fiona’s agency in this matter. As usual, there are more questions raised than resolved for readers in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.
When Grant comes over the mountain, he sees what he can see. But whether he ventures further from his cave into new territory (for there is another unpredictable layer to this story, which is left untouched in this discussion), or whether he retreats into old patterns of behaviour: that remains to be seen.
Have you read this Alice Munro story, or have you seen the Sarah Polley film, “Away from Her”?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Tomorrow: thoughts on “Away from Her”, the film directed by Sarah Polley, based on this story.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Unsurprisingly, a story named for a main character is going to be preoccupied with names and identity.
It’s also the first thing readers observe Queenie saying to Chrissy, when she arrives in Toronto and is met at Union Station.
Her husband thinks it sounds like an animal’s name, so Chrissy is asked not to call Queenie ‘Queenie’. It’s the first, but perhaps not the most surprising, indication that things have fundamentally changed for these two young women.
“It was more of a surprise to me to hear her say ‘Stan’ than it was to have her let me know she wasn’t Queenie anymore, she was Lena. But I could hardly have expected that she would still be calling her husband Mr. Vorguilla after a year and a half of marriage. During that time I hadn’t seen her, and when I’d caught sight of her a moment ago, in the group of people waiting in the station, I almost hadn’t recognized her.”
Chrissy finds it hard to articulate which elements of the situation she finds most shocking. In fact, by the time things which are truly shocking are evident, Chrissy seems inured to the presentation.
“I still couldn’t get used to her saying ‘Stan.’ It wasn’t just the reminder of her intimacy with Mr. Vorguilla. It was that, of course. But it was also the feeling it gave, that she had made him up from scratch. A new person. Stan. As if there had never been a Mr. Vorguilla that we had known together—let alone a Mrs. Vorguilla—in the first place.”
Chrissy tries to make herself comfortable in the apartment, to feel as though she is at home. But she is as uncomfortable as cousin Polly was in “Post and Beam” and perhaps as unwanted. Queenie does not seem to want eyes on her situation, although when pressed, she uses her status, her experience as a wife and woman of the world, to remind Chrissy of her inexperience.
“Well, of course he was wrong. Men are not normal, Chrissy. That’s one thing you’ll learn…”
And, yet, Queenie’s position is not an enviable one. Chrissy swears that she wil never marry, if this is marriage.
“My father and Bet. Mr. and Mrs. Vorguilla. Queenie and Mr. Vorguilla. Even Queenie and Andrew. These were couples and each of them, however disjointed, had now or in memory a private burrow with its own heat and disturbance, from which I was cut off. And I had to be, I wished to be, cut off, for there was nothing I could see in their lives to instruct me or encourage me.”
Bet was Chrissy’s father’s second wife, Queenie’s mother. Bet was a woman of the world too, possessor of bathrobes from mysterious sources. Even as a girl, Queenie seemed privy to knowledge that Chrissy lacked. Even as a girl, however, Chrissy seemed to find Chrissy’s knowledge distasteful. And strangely interwined with her lack of a father.
Chrissy’s father warned his daughter not to tease Queenie about not having a father. Chrissy naively suggests that she would not do so because she does not have a mother herself. But her father explains that this is not the same.
Perhaps because she did not have a father, Queenie becomes a certain kind of woman. And, yet, none of the women whom Chrissy has observed in relationships hold enviable positions. They are accorded a certain status, Chrissy acknowledges, but it is not a status she desires to claim for herself.
Indeed, it is not a desirable position. And it is unsurprising that Queenie/Lena vanishes and leaves Mr. Vorguilla/Stan behind.
What is surprising is that Chrissy never stops looking for her. But what makes her think that she would recognize this woman? When she looked like a completely different person after only a year and half of marriage.
I like to think that Queenie met a nice, normal man with a cozy bathrobe, but I suspect that she met a Mister who seemed to be nothing like ‘Stan’ because he looked and presented himself so differently.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the eighth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.