Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

“Vandals” Alice Munro

“But you better not cross him or he’ll skin you alive….Like he does with his other stuff.”

1994; Penguin, 2007

1994; Penguin, 2007

Liza’s father warned her about Ladner, who made his living as a taxidermist, working for museums.

It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Indeed, after that, Liza and her brother spent more time than ever with Ladner, with the exhibits in his preserve, on the trails and bridges he had created.

“That was the beginning of their spending Saturdays – and, when summer came, nearly all days – with Ladner. Their father said it was all right, if Ladner was fool enough to put up with them.”

But perhaps there should have been a serious warning attached to the children’s time with Ladner.

“He had let them watch. They had seen him clean out a squirrel’s skull and fix a bird’s feathers to best advantage with delicate wire and pins. Once he was sure that they would be careful enough, he let them fit the glass eyes in place. They watched him skin animals, scrape the skins and salt them, and set them to dry inside out before he sent them to the tanner’s.”

While watching, Liza and Kenny learn a lot, about birds and mushroom and many other things. Liza learns more than Kenny. But “[s]he knew not to talk so much about all she knew”.

There, in the northern part of Stratton township, nobody is monitoring the property that Ladner is taking steps to preserve.

It is a wilderness, but one which grows more ordered. A glass-fronted case, made from an old freezer, showcases some of the wild creatures that Ladner has stuffed.

“Signs told their habitat, their Latin names, food preferences, and styles of behavior. Some of the trees were labelled too. Tight, accurate, complicated information.”

There, on Ladner’s property, wilderness is conquered and (falsely? superficially?) ordered.

But.

“In different places the sun falls differently and in some places not at all.”

Across the way, where sits the house that Liza and Kenny’s father rents, there are “[n]o divisions…no secret places – everything is bare and simple”.

The children are drawn to him, however. Just as Bea Doud is drawn to him.

“But love affairs were the main concern of her life, and she knew that she was not being honest when she belittled them. They were sweet, they were sour; she was happy in them, she was miserable. She knew what it was to wait in a bar for a man who never showed up. To wait for letters, to cry in public, and on the other hand to be pestered by a man she no longer wanted.”

And, although Bea has been involved with Peter Parr, she is immediately attracted to Ladner when they go to his property on a Sunday afternoon in May.

“A man could have a very ordinary, a very unremarkable, insanity, such as his devotion to a ball team. But that might not be enough, not big enough – and an insanity that was not big enough simply made a woman mean and discontented. Peter Parr, for instance, displayed kindness and hopefulness to a fairly fanatical degree. But in the end, for me, Bea wrote, that was not a suitable insanity.”

“Vandals” begins with a letter that Bea never sent, never even finished. Readers aren’t sure, at first, of the means by which it’s being presented.

On the skin of it, it seems there has been some kind of misunderstanding between Bea and Liza, that something has gone wrong between them.

But the trouble in their relationship is as much about what did not happen as it is about something that did happen.

And all of that is in the past. Well, except for the part of it which unfolds in the literary present.

On the skin of it, Liza has grown up; she is a young woman when Bea asks her to look in on the rural property, the house called Dismal, while Bea and Ladner are at a Toronto hospital.

“She looked unique, and she was. She was a girl who wouldn’t say, ‘Jesus!’ but who would, in moments or downright contentments and meditative laziness, say, ‘Well, fuck!’
She said she had been wild before becoming a Christian.”

But the Liza that readers see in “Vandals” is more wild than meditative.

On the skin of it, she is irrational and uncontrollably fierce. She is her own dog, as one might say (as Bea says of Ladner, in fact).

The landscape of Ladner’s property is as varied as the landscape of Alice Munro’s story.

“The swamp was black from a distance, a long smudge on the northern horizon. But close up, it too was choked with snow. Black trunks against the snow flashed by in a repetition that was faintly sickening.”

Ellice Swamp, Perth County Ontario

Ellice Swamp, Perth County Ontario

Readers will find the view close-up in “Vandals” faintly sickening, too. But better than being skinned alive.

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 this is the final story in Open Secrets.
The other stories are here:

Carried Away
A Real Life
The Albanian Virgin
Open Secrets
The Jack Randa Hotel
A Wilderness Station
Spaceships Have Landed
Vandals
Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the next collection, The Love of a Good Woman, or for a single story; I would love the company.

14 comments to “Vandals” Alice Munro

  • Sandra

    This dark story is focussed on the personalities of Liza, Bea and Ladner. I thought one of the biggest “clues” was 8 or 9 pages in when Bea reflects upon her attraction to Ladner: “What did Ladner offer her, then, that she could live inside?” And when Ladner talks with Bea at a later time he said “he had realized that she was a person he could live with”. And when Bea speaks of Ladner she says “I come up against blocks of solid darkness.”
    And then there is the relationship between Liza and Bea and the unusual answer Liza gives Warren when he asks her “What did they do that made you so mad?” And Liza says she “sent her to college”. Liza believes that “Bea could spread safety, if she wanted to.” Yet, earlier, we are told that Liza did not know what she expected of Bea.
    And there are other puzzling pieces of information earlier in the story. Once again, Munro presents us with a puzzle and challenges us to find different ways to see. I am still trying to figure it out. This has been a fascinating collection: I am looking forward to the next one.

    • I’m also reminded of the quote that you shared in the discussion of “A Wilderness Station” about the truth and its relationship to what people are prepared to believe. I wonder if the children’s father realized, at some level, the true risk that they faced, spending so much time alone with Ladner on his property, whether if, in later years, anyone realized the dimensions of his exploitation (anyone, including Bea) but was not prepared to believe it.

      Now that I think about it, on the first two readings, I was more focussed on the pairings (particularly Bea and Ladner), but now I feel as though the relationship between Liza and Bea is the heart of the story. (Much like a later-in-life reading of Anne of Green Gables brings the focus to Anne and Marilla and away from Anne and Gilbert perhaps?) That Bea could spread safety but was viewed as not wanting to? That’s an interesting perspective. Perhaps I should re-read…

  • I didn’t like this one, it was my least favourite in the collection. Which is likely why I only took the story for it’s face value, and not anything beneath the surface so to speak. The darkness of the book and the characters just didn’t reach me. Perhaps this one needs a re-read for me, to fully get to the heart of the book.

    • For me, the re-read was necessary, because the first time through I simply hadn’t grasped what had motivated Liza (beyond her wildness), and beyond that there was simply a kind of dark menace that I hadn’t deciphered. So it just seemed chaotic and impenetrable. Now I think that must be deliberate on the author’s part, because Liza isn’t prepared to name what happened either, so she just brushes against a variety of emotions, all of which push readers away (which is understandable in hindsight, but puzzling in the moment). I felt as though I should re-read again, after I’d started to recognize some patterns, but I didn’t want to reinhabit that space – so tense, so isolating, so despairing – so I can understand why you might not want to return to it.

  • Sandra

    I am convinced that all the pieces are there and that I just have to read it enough times to be able to put them together even if that ends up to be in more than one way. I read it twice and am also reluctant, as you put it, “to reinhabit that space” but simultaneously I want to figure it out. The “accident” referred to near the beginning of the story is something I want to understand.

    • That’s true. With this story, I do believe all the pieces are there. But with, say, “Open Secrets”, I think some of the pieces can be fit into more than one place in the puzzle, so that even if I re-read, I’ll still be left with just as many questions. I think there has been more academic work on this story than on some of the others, if you wanted to get really serious about it. *wink*

  • Sandra

    It is highly coincidental that I am reading A Memoir of Friendship and came across some references to Vandals last night. In a letter dated September 20, 1994, Carol Shields writes to Blanche Howard: “Remember this summer you wrote to me about one of Alice Munro’s stories in The New Yorker, that you hadn’t understood at first, and then all the pieces suddenly fell together? I think it was the story “Vandals” that ends her new collection. Can you write me , right away if possible, about what you figured out. I’m a little mystified, more than a little, and am trying to write a review for the Ottawa Citizen. I remember you cracked the code, as it were, on her story “Fits”. Sharon Butala’s review in The Globe did shed a little light on the new stories, but not quite enough.” So comforting to be in such august company while trying to figure out this story.

    • That’s superb: what synchronicity. Thanks for copying that out. And now I just wish I’d seen her cracked code on “Fits” too (right now, all I remember are the eggs and the staircase!). I have Blanche Howard’s novels at hand, and really hope to get to them soon.

  • Ee Mei

    I think that from what Kenny did (punching at the letters P.D.P. carved on the tree, and shouting “pull down pants”, and his accident /suicide? hints that not only Liza but he was being sexually abused by Ladner. Bea stuck around with Ladner, because although she was aware of his behaviour, she allowed it to happen. This insanity in Ladner was what she found exciting, it was something she could live in, unlike the mild “insanities of her previous lovers”; but she drowned her sorrows in alcohol

    • I think one of the most amazing and frustrating (depending on mood) things about this story is that there are hints all the way through but there is no overt commentary so we are left, as readers, to simply reread and piece things together as completely as we can. The questions surrounding the abusive behaviour and all the characters’ responses to it spiral; every time I reread, my opinions shift slightly.

  • Anthony

    I first found Open Secrets on audio, read by Jackie Burroughs, at the library. I listened to the stories over and over while I puttered in my studio. And tried to puzzle out what clues I had missed for the true meaning of each story.
    This week I have read the stories again, and they are as intriguing as before.
    Thank you for offering insight here.

  • Anthony

    I admire Munro’s skill of observing how human relations parallel and surprise.

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