If this were the first Munro story that you read, by the time you reached the end of “1. Anonymous Letters”, you might be shaking your head, for that segment seems to just stop.
It will be something of a wait, though, for “A Queer Streak” is the longest story in A Progress of Love, and it echoes “Chaddeleys and Flemings 1. Connection 2. The Stone in the Field” in The Moons of Jupiter, taking the reader on a memorable journey deep into the workings of a rural family.
The journey begins with the past. “Violet’s mother — Aunt Ivie — had three little boys, three baby boys, and she lost them.” So it begins, in fact, before the lives of the characters you will come to know best in these pages.
“Anonymous Letters” is mainly about Violet, and “Possession” is mainly about her sister’s son, Dane. But “A Queer Streak” begins before Violet and Dane exist, and the journey begins with loss.
It actually begins with Violet’s mother’s loss. But readers understand the loss through Violet’s eyes.
When she discusses the phrase, what it means to lose someone, it recalls the image of the father who crosses the fields with the boy’s body in his arms (from “Miles City, Montana”).
[It also reminds me of a scene in David Bergen’s The Age of Hope, but therein rests a spoiler; if you’ve read it, you will know that it considers a different kind of loss, in the fields, a child involved as well.]
But Violet’s mother lost three boys before she had three girls, and this is what informs “A Queer Streak”, a loss, which caused a queer streak to run through the woman, who was called Aunt Ivie, even by her own children.
“It was as if King Billy and Aunt Ivie had not quite understood how to go about making an ordinary life, even if they had meant to.”
And, so, the three girls (Opal Violet, the oldest, and Dawn Rose and Bonnie Hope, who were five and six years younger than Violet) were never part of an ordinary life.
When Violet is old enough to travel away from home, she has a room in a boarding house, and she comes to have another perspective on her family.
“What was their farm but a few acres of shallow soil scattered in among rubbly hills and swamp? What folly to think you could settle in there and live a life and raise a family.”
In her pride, she recalls Del (in Lives of Girls and Women), Rose (in Who Do You Think You Are?) and “The Shining Houses” and “The Time of Death” (Dance of the Happy Shades), other characters and stories in which distinctions between Town and Country are as divisive as the two separate doors to the church.
When some characters recognize this distinction, they believe they cannot return to those few acres. Rose marries and moves to the west coast in that collection, and Violet, too, plans to marry, a respectable United Church minister.
“They became more and more convinced that if they were married, they would be having the kind of pleasures that nearly make you faint when you think about them.”
But Violet returns home once more, and she sees something which pulls her back for good.
“That smile, or grin, was one that Violet thought she would never forget. It was innocent and evil, like the smile of some trusted person turned or revealed to be an enemy in a dream.”
That smile or grin, that was the queer streak; that was what pulled Violet back to those rubbly hills.
“Her whole life was being pulled away from her – her future, her love, her luck, and her hopes. All that was being pulled off like skin, and hurt as much, and left her raw and stinging.”
Right there, where her skin is pulled away, that’s what “Anonymous Letters” ends. In fact, if you started to read with “Possessions”, you would see the Violet that Dane (her nephew) knows.
“Violet told him stories about her own childhood on the farm, with his mother and the other sister, who lived out in Edmonton now, and their mother and father, whom she called ‘characters’. Everybody was a character in those stories; everything was shaped to be funny.”
Violet shapes things just as skilfully as Rose does in Who Do You Think You Are? and she knows just how to paint the characters for listeners who can marvel and shake their heads in wonderment, approving and lauding the distance between these tales and the sophisticated woman before them.
And, for the most part, after her engagement is halted and she moves back to those acres of shallow soil, Violet inhabits the role of worldly woman with grace and conviction.
But her nephew occasionally catches a glimpse of something else. The Queer Streak. “In fact, he had seen her – now he remembered, he had seen her tilt her head to the side and give it a quick slap, as people do to get rid of a buzzing, unwelcome presence.”
Dane’s aunt — Opal Violet — had a fiance and a whole set of hopes, and she lost them.
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 ninth in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “Circle of Prayer”.