Whether and how a girl rode a bicycle mattered a great deal in the 1950s in southwestern Ontario, for the young Alice Munro.
“We lived just beyond the town limits, so if I showed up riding a bicycle—and particularly this bicycle—it would put me in the category of such girls. Those who wore women’s oxford shoes and lisle stockings and rolled their hair.”
What does it mean? To be such a girl? To wear oxfords? To roll your hair?
Such was the stuff of being a girl, being a woman. These details hold great significance.
And, yet, they might be completely misleading. Particularly if donned as a distraction.
“Or it might not have been a disguise, but just one of the entirely disjointed and dissimilar personalities I seemed to be made up of.”
Some girls were top drawer.
Other girls were not.
While some were more top drawer, others were less top drawer.
And what does that say about girls who chose to associate with either group.
“Salvation Army people were even less top drawer than the girls I was with.”
Some women, like Mirim Alpin, opted out.
Perhaps like those who eeked out an existence apart from either town or country, Miriam inhabited a different state: other.
” A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?”
Perhaps she insisted on her own set of standards, untraditional and in-between.
“She liked horses better than she liked people. She would have been married by now if she could have married a horse.”
Russell found a niche in Miriam’s world and, at least for a time, the young Alice believed she might carve out a place for herself in Russell’s world.
But it was, unquestionably, a world very different from hers.
“There were no bread-and-butter plates. You put your slice of bread on the oilcloth or on the side of your big plate. And you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread before the pie was set down on it.”
This is about porcelain but it’s more about custom and status, about whether a girl accustomed to bread-and-butter plates will mind the oilcloth, the crumbs.
The young Alice has ideas about such things. Also about love, and about lust and passion. Some of these ideas (many of them?) came from the books that she read.
“The Sun Is My Undoing. Gone with the Wind. The Robe. Sleep in Peace. My Son, My Son. Wuthering Heights. The Last Days of Pompeii. The selection did not reflect any particular taste, and in fact my parents often could not say how a certain book came to be there—whether it had been bought or borrowed or whether somebody had left it behind.”
Ironically, these stories educate her as a girl, but they also offer her an escape, when reality juts up against imagination.
“Even then I didn’t settle myself in a chair to be comfortable but continued to sit hunched on the stool, filling my mind with one sentence after another, slamming them into my head just so I would not have to think about what had happened.”
This story is the one which I remember most clearly from my first reading of this collection, perhaps because it so solidly confronts the question of romantic disappointment, as do many of the stories which I consider my favourites in her fiction.
I imagine that they began with the scenes described in “Lying under the Apple Tree”, with bread-and-butter plates and oxford shoes.
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 seventh story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Hired Girl”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.