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