A young narrator, away from home for the first time, is in a unique position to comment on a world that seems new and fresh to her and yet there are many situations which the reader recognizes as familiar and patterns which she, as an older adult, also recognizes.
Think of Edie in “How I Met My Husband”, who has gone to work for the Peebles on the Fifth Line.
Consider Alva in “Sunday Afternoon”, who has gone to work for the Gannetts and is looking forward to having a vacation with them in Georgian Bay later that summer.
Girls with a new view of the world make for interesting narrators.
Uncle Jasper and Aunt Dawn have opened their home to their niece because her parents have gone to Africa to work for a year.
Well, that’s how she used to describe it. But, as she comes to understand that her uncle views the situation differently, she begins to describe it differently herself soon, too.
Jasper and Dawn’s life is alien to their young guest in many ways. “My parents gave the kind of parties where people ate chili out of clay pots,” she observes. Jasper and Dawn do not give parties and when people do, at last, come over for an evening, intricate and dainty cakes are served instead.
Other differences are more easily summarized; her parents are Unitarians and do not say grace before meals and espouse beliefs such as socialized health care, whereas Uncle Jasper attends the United Church and insists on various rituals of propriety and opts for hymns over classical music.
Her twinned responses of resistance and admiration are credible, and she affords the reader a space alongside, as she and the reader work through the layers of observation (and unravel the effect that her memory has had on her understanding of the situations she observed so many years before) to uncover the significance of the story and its title.
It might be the home itself. “The house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his. Even if he was at his practice next door, or out on a call, things had to be ready for his approval at any moment.”
Certainly Uncle Jasper expected his house to be a haven. And the narrator imagines the advice that Aunt Dawn would have received. ‘A woman’s most important job is making a haven for her man.’
Aunt Dawn would not have said it herself. The narrator observes that she “shied away from statements”, but it might have been in a magazine which the narrator found in the house, and Aunt Dawn did work very hard to make his home something beautiful, remarkable.
And although the narrator seems to object to the fact that this responsibility requires all of Aunt Dawn’s time and energy, it’s clear that the home is beautiful and comfortable when such attention is lavished upon it. (“Haven” is set in the 1970′s; were the focus on another set of characters, the shifting social mores might have been that much more dramatic.)
“The slow realization that came to me was that such a regime could be quite agreeable.”
Not, perhaps, so agreeable for those who are responsible for the work required behind-the-scenes. Aunt Dawn and the maid, Bernice, would certainly have experienced the “regime” rather differently, when inhabiting it not as a guest or a beneficiary, but as its sole contributors.
Where Aunt Dawn and Bernice might find a haven is clearly elsewhere. Some might find it in another’s home. Some might find it playing an instrument. Some might find it in a large city (like Toronto, where a woman can be a professional violinist). Some might find it in a church.
Some might find it in fiction like Alice Munro’s.
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 fifth in Dear Life, with next Sunday reserved for “Pride” and the following Wednesday for “Corrie”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.