“Friend of My Youth” Alice Munro

The title story of this collection begins with talk of an act being “too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness”.

1990; Penguin, 1991

1990; Penguin, 1991

On first reading, this seems a straightforward observation about the narrator’s relationship with her mother.

She has been dreaming of her mother on occasion.

And this recurring dream stops, she posits, because the hopefulness and forgiveness contained therein are overwhelmingly present.

Another way of saying this?

The dreamer no longer believes in the hope and forgiveness that her subconscious has created for her.

She requires a more elaborate fiction to find hope and forgiveness.

And this story, “Friend of My Youth”, might offer the narrator that fiction she desires. But it is neither “too transparent” nor “too easy” to find.

To begin with, the reader must try to decipher whether the narrator is actually thinking about her mother, because the focus of the story which unfolds in the past seems to be Flora rather than her mother.

As it was explained to the narrator, Flora Grieves was living in the Ottawa Valley with her sister Ellie and her sister Ellie’s husband, Robert Deal, (they being  Cameronians, some “freak religion from Scotland”), in a “black board house with its paralytic Sundays and coal-oil lamps and primitive notions”.

All of this was and is mystical, not only to the narrator, who has heard stories of her mother’s younger years for her entire life, but to the mother as well. Nobody knows why wood in the Ottawa Valley wears down by turning back rather than grey. And nobody knows what to expect from such a “backward” religious belief system either.

The unexpected holds a certain allure, however; the young teacher, bound for her position in a one-room school, is prepared to face the mystery.

(The unexpected is significant in the dream too; it is the unexpected sighting of narrator’s mother there, in the dream, which is memorable. But the mother always comments — in the dream — that she knew it would happen “someday”; she was prepared for it all along.)

“Flora and Ellie were both dark-haired, dark-eyed women, tall and narrow-shouldered and long-legged. Ellie was a wreck, of course, but Flora was still superbly straight and graceful.”

Flora could “look like a queen”, a slender gypsy queen, “with her black hair and her skin that always looked slightly tanned, and her lithe and bold serenity”.

Everything about life at the Grieves seems to have been unusual, unexpected: their looks, the way the house is divided, the rhythm of life on weekdays and Sundays, household routines.

The way people had spoken about them, her mother expected the sisters and Robert to be middle-aged or older, but Ellie was about thirty and Flora seven or eight years older than that.

(“Robert Deal might be in between.” Where Robert might be? That’s something else entirely. The story is preoccupied first with the narrator, then her mother, then Flora, and finally Ellie. But, as it turns out, Robert is at the heart of the plot, even though the reader hardly understands a thing about him or where he falls in relationship to the two sisters. And, if the reader accepts that these relationships are mystifying, it seems quite possible that there is something about Robert’s relationship with the narrator’s mother than the reader does not understand either. For some reason, there is no overt comment made about this man; the narrator is left to speculate, to imagine a resolution for him and the women around him, and the reader is left in the same position.”

Even basic details are not as expected. How women behave — in relationship to the expectations of them in a traditional sense — is a preoccupation in “Friend of My Youth” as in other stories by Alice Munro and here, again, the exception is more significant than the rule.

The narrator’s mother is a dutiful fiancee, preparing her trousseau. Flora is a responsible house-keeper, cleaning and keeping house and offering support to her married sister. Ellie is weak and bed-ridden, having suffered a series of miscarriages and stillbirths.

But not all women behave in an appropriately (or expected) feminine manner:

“Her hair was freshly done to blind the eye with brassy reflections, and her face looked as if it would come off on a man’s jacket, should she lay it against his shoulder in the dancing. Of course she did dance. She danced with every man present except [her husband]….”

This woman, introduced a third of the way into the story, plays a pivotal role in “Friend of My Youth”. Although the reader does not completely understand the way in which she impacts the Grieves sisters, this woman stands out and apart from the other female characters herein.

In a quieter way, Flora does not behave as expected, neither in terms of conventional expectations of her as an unmarried woman (but I shall not reveal the decision that she makes which appears contrary to the subordinate role she has accepted throughout much of the story) nor in terms of the narrator’s mother’s expectations of this “gypsy queen”.

In fact, at one point in the story, Flora does behave in a way which some might consider “too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness”.

And the reader is left to wonder whether this is a fiction on the mother’s part or a fiction on the narrator’s part, or whether it is another fiction entirely which the reader should be contemplating in this story.

What do you think?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the first story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

2014-07-11T17:17:48+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Sandra May 2, 2013 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Very pleasant to be back in Munro-land. I found this story intriguing and mysterious. A little research on the Cameronians made it even more intriguing. What is the connection between Flora, Ellie,the narrator’s mother and the Cameronians? Is this the “another fiction entirely” which you are pointing to at the close of your review?
    The Grieves taken separately are a most interesting group living in what Munro describes as a “scrambled disarranged sort of country with no easy harmony about it.” The family, it seems, is also “scrambled” and “disarranged” and has “no easy harmony about it”. I love it when Munro gives me these clues but I don’t find them until I go back into the story a second time.

    • Buried In Print May 3, 2013 at 7:24 am - Reply

      It does seem as though there is some fiction, somewhere, in what we are told about the Cameronians. Either the bits at the beginning, largely uninformed one might argue (via the narrator’s mother or the grapevine) or the bits in the final paragraph of the story. Certainly neither Flora nor Ellie seemed to fit either description. I would agree that the description would work just as well to describe the family as the landscape, and in this collection (even more than the last) I feel as though there are parallel commentaries. That seems even more apparent in “Five Points”.

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