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

“Rich as Stink” Alice Munro

In “Save the Reaper” and “The Children Stay” readers are directed to wonder what young children remember of their parents’ shenanigans, but in this story readers inhabit Karin’s perspective.

Love Good Woman Munro

Karin is certainly old enough to actively observe and contemplate the events unfolding around her (although from a girl’s perspective, so although she is maturing, her relational experiences are limited).

And even more fascinating, she is consciously aware of her role in these events, of her capacity to influence and pursue a desired outcome.

The story begins and ends with Karin and her mother Rosemary, but readers’ attentions are directed from the outset towards another kind of investment.

From the title, readers know that this story is not only about parenting and childing, but about paying and collecting, about negotiating dynamics of not only relationships but also economics.

“’Someday you will be rich,’ Derek said matter-of-factly. ‘But not soon enough.’ He was putting the camera away in its case. ‘Keep on the right side of your mother,’ he said. ‘She’s rich as stink.’”

Karin isn’t overtly aware of her mother’s wealth, or of the value of keeping on Rosemary’s right side. She is actually approaching the age where she aims to be on Rosemary’s wrong side at times.

But she is clearly aware of the question of sides, of there being right ones and wrong ones. When Karin arrives at the airport, she scans the crowd and sees her mother Rosemary but not Derek, and readers can see Karin making a shift, adjusting her position, choosing to play a different role.

“Rosemary said with dire serenity, ‘We aren’t seeing each other anymore. We aren’t working together.’
‘Really?’ said Karin. ‘You mean you’ve broken up?’
‘If people like us can break up,’ Rosemary said.”

The nature of Rosemary’s relationship with Derek is unclear because readers view it through Karin’s eleven-year-old eyes; Rosemary has been working with Derek on a book, and initially maintained an apartment in Toronto but recently moved into a trailer near Derek’s and Ann’s house. A trailer in which Derek keeps a lot of things, not only manuscript-related items but records and a coffee grinder, things that have a resonance beyond a working relationship even as viewed by an 11-year-old girl.

Regardless, Karin does not overlook the conflict inherent in their goings-on. Derek’s words are the source of the story’s title, his evaluation of Rosemary’s worth. There is no doubt that he perceives many differences between his own status and Rosemary’s, so that even the contrast in their taste in coffee takes on a symbolic importance.

These differences are meaningful for Karin, “people like us” and “people like them”, and she recognizes something familiar therein, sees a fluidity in her capacity to choose a side which intrigues her.

“Never, never, in her school-year life, her life with Ted and Grace, would Karin find herself in a place with this horrid smell of scorched sugar and grease and cigarette smoke and rank coffee.” 

But this kind of detail is even more meaningful for readers, who recognize an additional layer of complexity, particularly after Rosemary arrives at the house for dinner with Derek and Ann (Karin already on site).

“Derek is not putting his hands on Rosemary anywhere but looks as if he is always just about to do so,” Karin observes. And for readers, the scene in which Ann discovers her wedding dress is cast in a new light. And whether a donut shop is rejected is connected to overarching matters of acceptance and union.

There is an air of doom and gloom attached to the household, Derek observed to Karin earlier in the day, and he attributes this to Ann’s declaration of intent. She plans to accept an offer on the property and move elsewhere.

Ann’s motivation might well be economic, as Derek explains it to Karin. Karin, at 11 years old, seems to receive it at face-value and insists that if she had money she would buy the property so that all could remain as it has been. Rosemary continuing to live in the trailer, Derek continuing to work on his book, Ann continuing to sit in the dark in the kitchen.

But even Karin recognizes another element at work. “Karin felt her face heat up, she felt the shock of those words. It was something she’d never heard before. Rich as stink. It sounded hateful.”

There are many possible elements which readers might identify in what Karin does not recognize and articulate. Derek’s assessment heats up Karin’s skin, but she does not identify specifics.

Nonetheless, the lack of understanding does not halt Karin’s response, her desire to shift the positions of the players on the stage at the dinner.

A phrase from “Royal Beatings” in Who Do You Think You Are? which often focusses on Rose and Flo’s relationship (step-daughter and step-mother) comes to mind:

“She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, that there comes a time when you can’t draw back.”

In “Rich as Stink”, readers do not see that time for Rosemary, neither the point at which she perhaps did not draw back nor the point at which she may have.

But they do witness the hinge in Karin’s experience.  And the scene which unfolds is mythic and unforgettable: the little bride ablaze.

What did you think of this story?

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 sixth story in the collection of the same name. 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: “Before the Change”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

2 comments to “Rich as Stink” Alice Munro

  • Angela H.

    I’m very much enjoying these Saturday mornings spent with Alice Munro. And a whole week between stories gives me time to mull and think about the characters and their motivations.

    But having said that, this story is my least favourite in the current collection. Why? I guess I didn’t buy Karin’s point of view as an 11 year old child. I know she’s looking back from the complexity of adulthood, so I can see the adult conclusions superimposed upon the childhood memory. Don’t we all do that somewhat? But I was jarred a few times into wondering how much an 11 year old (even a worldly-wise 11 year old) would notice emotional details like this: “Karin had wondered if ‘depressed’ was the right word. Derek seemed to her critical, and sometimes fed up. Was that depression?”

    Who am I to criticize the great Alice Munro? No–I still liked the story, just not as much as the others in The Love of a Good Woman.

    What I DID like was what I often like in her short stories–the unspecified details as in this revelation: “Once after Rosemary left Ted she came back. Not to the house–she was not supposed to come to the house. ” And the reader is left wondering, why?

    Also I noticed that Munro sets the scene for the drama (which I will not spoil here) by describing the layout of the hall, the front entrance, and the sun porch with so much detail that the reader feels a sense of doom gathering. I had not remembered the specifics of this story and so I held my breath for several paragraphs.

    And finally, I appreciated the variation on the theme of playing roles: Karin’s lipstick and beret at the very beginning, Rosemary’s lipstick at the bus stop, Karin’s overuse of Ann’s rouge on her cheeks before the dramatic entrance, the stuffing of the dress front. Classic.

    • It might be my least favourite as well, but I think for me that’s because I want a few more pieces of information and feel that I can’t really tease parts of the truth out of this one with rereading, because Karin simply doesn’t possess some of the information that I want. So whereas I’m used to still having questions when I’ve finished reading one of Alice Munro’s stories, because this is told from Karin’s young eyes, I have even more than I expected.

      In contrast, the other stories in the collection are told not only from an adult perspective, but often with the benefit (?) of hindsight. And, yet, I also realize that very thing could be part of the charm/appeal for another reader, or even perhaps for me as a reader, on another reading occasion. (There are the boys in the first story, but there are parallel narratives offered alongside.)

      My two step-daughters are close to Karin’s age, turning eleven and fourteen this year, and Karin is believable for me as a character because she seems very aware about some things and clueless about others, doubtlessly because she has had experiences which inform her in some ways but not others. Because children absorb the language they hear, I suspect there is another layer to tease out with sentences like the one you quoted, to guess at an answer to the question of how an 11-year-old girl might know the word ‘depressed’ but not understand what it means.

      I did not remember the event either, which is puzzling, isn’t it? Because it is wholly and completely dramatic. And as you say, very suspenseful, with the mechanics of the scene laid out so clearly. I also didn’t note the sentence you quoted about the question of Rosemary’s returning to the house. I guess I need to reread…again.

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