“The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” Alice Munro

The first time that I finished reading this story, I thought it was all about happiness.

No doubt influenced by the last line and by the knowledge of later Alice Munro stories pulling that theme to their hearts. (The collection Too Much Happiness immediately comes to mind.)

After I read it for a second time, I was overwhelmed by the class issues that the story raises, by the fact that the story begins and ends with surprise, with people not ending up where they thought they would end up.

Of course that intersects with talk of happiness, in terms of possibilities and restrictions, dreams and disappointments. But another reading brought the story’s underpinnings, the complications surrounding the social hierarchy, into sharp focus.

It was there from the start, with Sam’s surprise at parts of Gallagher being shabbier than he remembered, and he’s aware that a number of factors might be influencing his response to the town he lived in more than fifty years earlier.

For instance, it “could be because he lives now in Victoria – in Oak Bay, an expensive and pretty neighborhood full of well-off retired people like himself.”

He certainly remembers that, from his own first experience of it, Miss Kernaghan’s boarding house was rooted in hierarchy. It was the last house in town, close to the road and forever dusty, but even so, someone simply sitting on the bench was subject to certain “town standards”.

Maybe “a girl would sit there to take off her rubber boots and put on her town shoes – hiding the boots in the ditch until she put them on again on her way home.” But Miss Kernaghan would holler at that girl, remind her of her place.

When Sam arrived to board there, with his cousin Edgar, the boys were 17. “They were not going back to the farm.” They were in town to study at the business college, but they didn’t fit in with the other students there, any more than the girl on the bench was welcomed to have a seat.

“The town, under leaves and the smoke of burning leaves, was mysterious and difficult, a world on its own, with it church spires and factory whistles, rich houses and row houses, networks, catchwords, vested interests. He had been warned; he had been told town people were snotty. That was not the half of it.

There were certain places in town in which they felt distinctly unwelcome, uncomfortable. Like Dixon’s, the drugstore with the ice-cream parlor in the back; when they passed, “they stopped chewing, looked stolidly straight ahead. They would never go inside.”

But they did go to the skating rink, although they could not afford the 15-cent-admission fee. Instead, they found a complicated and risky way to gain free access in the evenings. The rink is more accessible than the drugstore, but it harbours its own hierarchy as well.

The visible source of power in the rink is the team of rinky-dinks, boys under the age of sixteen who collect payment (sometimes deliberately shortchanging girls who were afraid of them) and do various odd-jobs on the site. (The invisible source of power is the man in the backroom, to whom even the rinky-dinks must answer.)

The rinky-dinks, however, have status and, among other powers they exert, they appear to control the moon in the rink. On its complicated system of wires and ropes, a tin can that covers the yellow light can be moved, so that the light appears to shift across the building and the rink like the moon moves across the sky.

Yup, the rinky-dinks run the universe (and Sam and Edgar must circumvent them, and in their success at doing so is where the happiness blossoms).

And, in that universe, girls cannot be rinky-dinks: boys have more power than girls.

Callie dresses like a boy to gain access to certain activities that would be off limits to her otherwise, for instance, sneaking into the rink. She does nearly all the work at the boarding house, all the more so since Miss Kernaghan’s rheumatism has been causing trouble, but there are many restrictions on her behaviour outside of that role.

In that universe, children don’t matter either: they must always answer to the adults, and they aren’t even allowed to skate in the evenings.

But see? That’s how it happens.

One moment, it’s all about who’s running the moon.

In the next, it’s all about who’s running the larger show.

And, there, children don’t rank either. At least not in the story of Callie’s birth that Miss Kernaghan tells, in which the father abandoned the baby after the mother died giving birth in the lobby of the hotel nearly twenty years ago.

And nor does Callie matter, relatively, to Edgar and Sam. They call her “little slavey, forever out of things, queer-looking, undersized, and compared to her they were in the mainstream, they were fortunate.”

And the man who helped with Callie’s delivery, the hotel driver? “The driver was French Canadian, so he had probably seen a baby born before.” Civilized people don’t know how to bind off an umbilical cord; they stand aside and they wring their hands and protest the mess.

It’s a complicated system of wires and ropes, restricting and guiding, pushing and pulling, and it’s just as complicated fifty years later.

Sam’s process of rediscovering the town of Gallagher is not as much about walking its streets as it is about “learning the things not to mention”. He does not mention “Miss Kernaghan, the boarding house, the skating rink” because mentioning old times is “a subtle form of insult”.

And those who intersect with this new Sam, who lives in the Oak Bay section of Victoria, are “learning not to ask him how much his house cost”.

Maybe it is about happiness (part of me still thinks so), but it’s also about who directs “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”.

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. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the sixth in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “Jesse and Meribeth”.

2014-03-20T14:47:30+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Sandra November 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    As you have stated, there is much about happiness in this story and Sam’s reflections on this topic are the ones most accessible to the reader. He recalls the time on the train when he and Edgar and Callie escaped Gallagher and “all three of them laughed with relief” and he is convinced fifty years later that the laughing “couldn’t have been because they saw an outcome like this”. To Sam’s mind “They were just laughing. They were happy. They were free.” He doesn’t understand why Edgar married Callie and why they returned to Gallagher and why, why, why. And Callie says that Edgar is happy. Callie also wonders what it is that Sam wants. So, as a reader I am left wondering whether Sam was actually or ever happy. He is the one who came back later in life to Gallagher: what was he looking for? And is there any “progress” in the love represented in this story. For me I think I see that in Callie and Edgar, they have stayed where they began but both have accomplished much of what they wanted it seems. Sam has made considerable materialistic progress but in the end is tempted to tell Callie that “he might stay until he finds out {what he wants}”. This would imply that perhaps Sam never knew what he wanted. Perhaps for Sam it was more about controlling the moon and getting in the rink for free while for Edgar and Callie something different was happening. Munro certainly has us thinking about what happiness is and how it manifests itself.

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm - Reply

      It’s true: we get all of this from Sam’s perspective. So my doubts that Callie’s identifying Edgar’s happiness aren’t my doubts at all; it is all about Sam’s doubts and insecurities really.

      And maybe it`s all about that wedge that he refers to early in the story (when he mentions that it’s a good thing that both he and Edgar smell a little because if they didn’t both smell, someone might notice that Edgar was good-looking and that could drive a wedge between the boys).

      Perhaps that takes us back to the title story…it’s not as much about love as it is about grudges.

      It’s true that we don’t know how each of those characters experienced the rinky-dink manipulations of the moon, only Sam. One other thing that I wondered was, in the talk about the machinations required for a boy to gain entrance to the rink (and let the other two in), they never said how they managed that. Did they take turns? Was it always one of them?

      I wondered this because it seemed like Sam was more influenced by Edgar than the other way around. He did seem to know what he wanted back then, but he wanted to finish business school, and what Edgar wanted contradicted that desire. What does it mean that Sam set aside his plans (and that he never mentions it, perhaps because he was, ultimately, successful anyway)? How does that fit with Sam’s imagined happiness (and possible lack of it, given that his only memory of it stretches back to that scene on the train)?

  2. Danielle November 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    I focused on that same quote at the end about happiness–I hadn’t thought of the class angle until I read your post, but it’s all there. I pulled out a couple of the same quotes–the way Sam had houses in other places, was more successful. I was wondering about the reference to the French Canadian man who helped in the birth–what did that mean? Why would a French-Canadian know any more than anyone else? Now I see–interesting–the usual sort of social assumptions! You make me want to go back and read the story again now! I was reading something about the theme of love–progress of love–that goes through the stories in this collection–need to ponder that in light of the stories I’ve read–halfway through the book now! (And two stories into her first collection…).

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      I can see where a simple statement like that could really throw the proverbial wrench into your burgeoning Canlit-reading-project; you’d be picking up every Francophone author’s work expecting gritty childbirth scenes and obstetrical advice littering the pages. Heheh. (I’m kidding, of course, but it’s fun to think about.) And, of course, the story works just fine without that sentence, but it can add another layer too, if the reader seeks it out.

      Where is the progress of love in this one? It’s interesting to consider. Outwardly it would seem that Edgar and Callie progressed; they can check off the little box for marriage, at least. And outwardly, in contrast, it seems that Sam is stuck, sorting out something from long ago. But did Edgar and Callie really progress, or did they just travel the same endlessly unsatisfying circle? Is contentedly listening to story after story about someone else’s life, in an effort to avoid leaving your home, which is what Callie identifies as Edgar’s happiness, truly a progress of love?

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