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

“Save the Reaper” Alice Munro

“Daisy was barely three and could not understand what was going on.”

Love Good Woman MunroBecause there is something going on. Something that Daisy, at three years old, could not understand.

This is where the story begins, from a future vantage point, when 60-something Eve is looking back at the afternoon in which something happened.

Eve is re-constructing and re-evaluating, establishing a narrative that the reader can trust, or, at least, one which contains more of the truth.

(And, simultaneously, noting that her granddaughter, Daisy, would construct something completely different when she was older, reflecting.)

Because the same events are recounted even within the story, to other characters, and certain details are left out: these details are crucial to Eve’s experience, but she has specific reasons for excluding them.

(The reader has to wonder whether there are other details which Eve is leaving out as well, things that perhaps could not be understood. As in “The Spaceships Have Landed”. Or whether there are events yet-to-unfold as night falls at the end of the story, to which the reader will not be privy.)

In the meantime, the events of “Save the Reaper” are more than enough to contemplate, to toss about like a hard candy on one’s tongue.

Beginning with the title, which is a reworking of part of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”. When Eve recites some of the poem’s lines, Daisy asks about the meaning of one of the words.

(I asked Google for the source; I couldn’t identify the allusion but wasn’t surprised to find that it was a poem. That was true, too, of the title for “Oh What Avails”, and the ending of “White Dump”: “It is too late to talk of this now: it has been decided.”)

Poetry is scattered through Munro’s stories, and poets too: Almeda in “Meneseteung”, Franklin in “Dolly”, and Greta in “To Reach Japan”. The reader is meant to take note, intended to search for meaning as Daisy does.

(The latter story is particularly significant in connection with “Save the Reaper”; just as Eve recalls an encounter with a man on a train, Greta had a similar experience, although the story ends before the reader can determine just how many parallels exist between “Save the Reaper” and “To Reach Japan”.)

Daisy — perhaps expectedly, for all that her lack of comprehension is displayed from the beginning, for all that Eve wonders about what the young girl will retain of specific experiences and, in particular, of the something that happened — only speaks twice in the story.

She makes noises of delight and dismay, and on two occasions she asks what a word means. Once in regards to her mother and once in regards to a grain in the poem.

Mothers and grains: is the reader intended to think of the Greek myths that Daisy’s mother, Eve’s daughter, studied in school? It seems likely, because the allusions and the titles – and all the details – matter in Alice Munro’s stories.

Love Good Woman Paperback MunroA title, as Munro explains in a later story (“Fiction” in Too Much Happiness) is not something an author wriggles out of and leaves behind on the grass; the title is a clue to where the story comes from, to what has not yet been disposed of.

“You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from — why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.”

The reader at first might feel a little like Daisy: grappling with what has not been understood, what has not been disposed of (but which remains veiled, in allusion and in what-has-not-been-said).

And even the setting is transitory: this rented house (not a ‘home’, young Philip bossily corrects his grandmother) in the middle of nowhere.

It is a house like Liza’s father’s house in “Vandals”: with “[n]o divisions…no secret places – everything is bare and simple”. But another house in the middle of nowhere, like that Eve discovers when she pulls off the side-road, can be divided, with secret places: crowded and chaotic.

Across the way, the sun falls differently. The reader recalls the “unsuitable insanity” of the owner of that wild property where the sun did not fall at all in “Vandals”, with the wonders therein, when Eve recalls the wall with a mosaic.

““It was a place where I came once when I was a little girl. There was a wall with pictures on it all made with pieces of broken glass. I think a cement wall, whitewashed. When I saw those pillars by the road, I thought this must be it.'”

She realizes that she describes the wall differently depending on the circumstances of the telling; later, speaking to another man, she elaborates, tries to explain the way in which the pillars, the gateway, seemed to beckon her in, even as she recognizes that her narrative holds no meaning for him. (Perhaps he is not interested in mythic tales of the feminine.)

As is so often the case, the reader is tugged back and forth, through time and experience, left to wonder what did (and did not) happen in “Save the Reaper”.

From a thematic perspective, it is interesting to tease out the parallels and similarites with stories published before and after The Love of a Good Woman.

But within the context of a single story, there are an abundance of questions.

What questions preoccupy you as the reader?

[Perhaps one of these: What does one make of the shared reaction to "The Bridges of Madison County"? Is there a clue therein, to how Eve and Sophie might define "the love of a good woman" differently or similiarly? Of what significance is the contrast between Eve's experience and Sophie's experience of the time they have shared (in the past, when they shared a house after Philip was born and, in the present, at the cottage)? What does it matter what sort of clothing Eve's mother wore?Why does Eve go into the house, when Herb urges her to do so? Do you think Eve would have stopped the car for "the girl"? Why isn't she named? Why Chagall? Why alter the line of poetry in memory?]

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 fourth story in the collection The Love of a Good Woman. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week: “The Children Stay”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

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2 comments to “Save the Reaper” Alice Munro

  • Sandra

    I find your review of this story exquisite! It teases me to reread with new eyes and also to reread Vandals and Meneseteung and White Dump and all the other titles you have listed. I envy your familiarity and ability to link Munro’s stories and I am enchanted by it as if it were a mystery story in its own right. The layers provided by the different stories are like another dimension to the layers in the individual stories. Thanks so much for your work on this.

    A couple of the questions you suggested about this story were things I thought about, especially the one about the contrast between Eve’s experience and Sophie’s experience of the time they have shared and the reason Eve actually goes into the house. I went into a house like the one described many years ago when I was doing a government census in a rural area: the comparison between it and Munro’s description was a little uncanny. Such places do exist.

    • That’s a nice way of putting it: solving the mystery of the links and layers between the stories. Some of her stories seem more stand-off-ish and others, like this one, seem bursting with connections to other works. I’m particularly keen on the connections with the two women (Gretta and Eva) and the two rail journeys.

      Seems like there is more than one reason that she might have gone in. But I think one of the reasons was simply the sense of doing what she was told. Something that she also gets caught in with Philip, as young as he is in the story, when they are playing the game about the aliens, and he begins to insist on things going a certain way and, even though she has valid and mature reasons for refusing his demands, she gives way to his insistence. She is a good girl, even as a grown woman.

      Do you think there was more to her experience in the house than she shares, or that she observed more than she shares? Maybe I am reading too much into that possibility.

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