The Laidlaws have left the Ettrick Valley in Scotland behind, that parish with “no advantages”, but the family members also have left behind “long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections” which have inspired Alice Munro to narrate the experiences of her ancestors.
But what readers of her fiction recognize is that what is left unsaid in an Alice Munro narrative is as important as any overt commentary; in fact, sometimes the unsaid is of paramount importance.
So what do we, as readers, make of a declarative and deliberate omission? How do we silently cast that in contrast with what is drawn for us on the page?
“And that became the way the surviving brothers spoke of him until the day they died, and the way their children spoke of him. Poor Will. His own sons, naturally, did not call him anything but Father, though they too, in time, may have felt a pall, of sadness and fatedness, that hung around any mention of his name. Mary almost never spoke of him, and how she felt about him became nobody’s business but her own.”
Mary’s feelings are nobody’s business but her own. This could be a comment on the absence of the female experience from the pages of history. Presumably the majority of these ancestral letter-writers were male, their verbosity the fodder for fiction and women’s silences the impetus for imagination.
But here, in the narrative, Alice Munro chooses to keep Mary’s feelings private. They are not the business of we readers.
This story of frontier life might have been something like Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1988) or Kaye Gibbons’ On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998), planting the female experience at the heart of the narrative.
From the author of Lives of Girls and Women, this would not have been unexpected. And, indeed, “A Wilderness Station” suggests that “Illinois” might have been told differently, with Mary’s experiences at the heart of the story.
But “Illinois” sits Mary at the periphery. She has written to “the brothers in Ontario — what else could she do? — and in the late spring when the roads were dry and the crops were planted Andrew arrived with a team of oxen and a cart, to carry her and her children and their goods back to Esquesing”.
There, in the “what else could she do?” lies Mary’s story, in all of its silence. (And it joins the list of questioning titles, like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “What Do You Want to Know For?”) She is a passenger, an attendee; she does not inhabit the narrative on her own terms, only rides along between harvest phases.
What does drive the narrative of this story is, in the literal sense, Andrew who drives the cart and, in a metaphorical sense her young son, Jamie, whose escapades are presented from the beginning of the story, when she finds him having done what shouldn’t’ve been done with his father’s coat and tin box.
Ironically some other female characters drive specific aspects of the narrative in unexpected and creative ways. The two young girls recall the spirited and problematic energy of characters like Karin in “Rich as Stink” and Sabitha in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”, who also struggle with the the desire to impact the world in broader strokes than appear to be within their grasp.
And, then, there is Becky, summarily described and dismissed as “the squaw”, more help to Mary than anybody, Mary says, commenting upon Becky’s father being a white man (perhaps calling upon a near-status that a full-blooded native would not have had in the settlers’ eyes).
But Becky figures largely off-stage in the narrative, her silence complete and resounding; next to her, Mary appears quite the chatterbox. The possibility that Becky might impact greatly upon the family’s decisions to come and go is put forth by a child, who perceives that Becky’s capacity to defend herself against such charges will be ineffectual, but Mary and her boys are already set upon another route. Becky has let her neighbours go: what else could she do.
With “Illinois”, the characters in The View from Castle Rock move into Alice Munro’s proximity, geographically and semantically. These characters are about to establish roots in her home turf and her relationship to the characters can now be summed up in tidy language: the fourth baby making the journey to Upper Canada is her great-grandfather, Thomas. The use of silence may alter throughout the remaining stories as the bulk of archival material increases.
In the meantime, the boys play a game with spoons beneath the bunk, but the writer is just as preoccupied with the characters who are simply watching the game.
These marginalized characters are not positioned in such a way that they can grasp the silver and claim the win, but they are afforded a private power, nobody’s business but their own, even if they leave without saying good-bye.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “The Wilds of Morris Township”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.