As is often the case with Alice Munro’s story stories, details that a reader might overlook in everyday life take on a new significance.
Take, for instance, gravel. Small chips of stone, one thinks. And, yet, gravel is actually “a loose aggregation of small water-worn or pounded stones”.
Although the pit is dry for most of the story, those small stones could have been water-worn into fragments. Certainly the event at the heart of the story involves the pit being filled with water.
“At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. Not a large one…” And, so, the story begins.
The reader is immediately aware that the narrator is looking back, on “that time”, childhood, from a later time.
And just as people from one’s childhood often appear smaller when you meet them later, as the narrator observes, it seems possible that the gravel pit was actually even smaller than it appeared “at that time”.
And, yet, the gravel pit has a significance disproportionate to its “minor” status. And the gravel itself. For even the reader is living a life comprised of smaller well-worn bits of memories and experiences that shift and settle and shift once more.
A minor gravel pit. Tragedies occur in seemingly innocuous places, whether the ground beneath is solid or shifting.
Drownings (and the risk of them) play a central role in other Munro stories as well.
In “Miles City, Montana” the narrator remembers playing in the pasture next to the waters in which a young boy drowned, playing at being “horses and riders both, screaming and neighing and bucking and waving whips of tree branches besides a little nameless river that flows into the Saugeen in southern Ontario”.
A nameless little river. A shallow pit which is, years later, filled in, a house built atop it.
But years afterwards, the narrator of ”Gravel” (not clearly identified as male or female) is “waiting for the splash”, waiting for an explanation, for understanding.
As fragmented as that pit is, those pieces of stone, human memory is also incomplete. “I barely remember that life. That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture.”
The narrator is telling this story to reassemble, to create a sort of understanding. It is an interior conversation in “Gravel”, but the narrator has previously discussed the possibilities with three others, and none of the explanations alone have been lastingly or completely satisfying.
The bulk of the difficulty in this venture rests in the years between, in all that was not discussed and in all that has been lost since.
The narrator frequently refers to subjects of conversation that were studiously avoided after what happened at the pit, to the places in which the links required to form a proper picture are missing, and to the confusion rooted in imperfect memories.
“Of course, I had not understood or even particularly noticed these changes at the time. My mother was my mother. But no doubt Caro had noticed.”
The reader is left with even more questions than the narrator, even when it comes to seemingly simple observations such as these.
There are so many changes, related to the separation between the mother and father, related to Neal (who takes up with the mother as unexpectedly as he — and she, too — had taken up a life in the theatre), related to the expectations that a child has of a mother and a father and an older sibling. (And presumably of wives and husbands and lovers.)
For the most part, the reader is left to intuit the contrast to the children’s lives as currently recalled in “that time”. The narrator is primarily concerned with the time period immediately surrounding the tragedy at the pit, but there is an adult understanding of the fact that many other factors contributed to that situation before hand, creating the situation for which others would, later, feel such intense guilt and responsibility.
“…Neal got out of the car mad and yelled that he could have run me over. That was one of the few times that I saw him act like a father.”
How does one act like a father? How does one act like a mother? How does one choose not to act like a mother or father when one does, in fact, biologically inhabit that role? How might one choose not to accept those expectations or even temporarily abandon them? And what impact might that denial have on the children who have differing expectations?
And how does happiness fit into all that?
“The thing is to be happy. No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and the tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”
Perhaps there is some truth to that. But regardless of how lightly the narrator might tread on the earth, the surface might shift at any moment.
Entire lives are built on shifting surfaces; one can live atop a loss without understanding: indeed, without even knowing.
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, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the fourth in Dear Life, with next Wednesday reserved for “Haven” and the following Sunday for “Pride”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.