The title story in this collection follows “No Advantages” closely. It presents Old James the father, Andrew, Walter, and their sister Mary, Andrew’s wife Agnes, and Agnes and Andrew’s son James,”under two years old”, and recounts their experiences from “the harbor of Leith, on the 4th of June, 1818, [when] they set foot on board a ship for the first time in their lives” to travel to Canada.
The links between the first two narratives are clear. Readers slip into later generations and prepare to make their home in new lands alongside their representatives, straddling past and present (which is, in Munro’s typically time-bending manner, also the past) comfortably.
“’The other day I was telling you about that Will O’Phaup that was my grandfather but there was more to him than I told you. I did not tell you that he was the last man in Scotland to speak to the fairies. It is certain that I have never heard of any other, in his time or later.’
Walter has been trapped into hearing this story—which he has, of course, heard often before, though not by his father’s telling.”
Oh, yes: the younger generation is keen to break free from the traps, not only of repeated stories (boredom? embarrassment?) but of disappointments associated with times past and places left behind. The older generation is less certain whether this change indicates true progress, feeling more integrally tied to these ancestral tales and lands.
“‘What does it matter to me? It cannot be my home. It can be nothing to me but the land where I will die.’
‘It will be that for all of us,” says Andrew. “But when the time comes we will think of it more as a home.’”
For some, Canada represents a place in which to die, whereas others anticipate making a home there before that time comes, and others still are caught, unthinking, between these states.
“Young James stands in the midst of them—bright-eyed, fair, and straight. Slightly preening, somewhat wary, unnaturally solemn, as if he has indeed felt descend on him the burden of the future.”
The relationships surrounding James are particularly interesting; his description is succinct but revealing, and it’s possible to read considerable meaning into Munro’s decision to use his character as a focal point. (Perhaps more will be said about this in the spoiler-y comments below.)
These ocean voyages were precarious, long and fraught, and the adjustments required to new living conditions in the “new land” were demanding. The author’s research reveals discomfort and unpleasantness for some, untimely ends for others, en route or following disembarkment.
“Dead of some mishap in the busy streets of York, or of a fever, or dysentery—of any of the ailments, the accidents, that were the common destroyers of little children in his time.”
Occasionally, the thread of genealogical history is pulled taut. Lines from registries and ledgers are sometimes only thinly veiled in fiction.
“Walter married an American girl from Montgomery County in New York State. Eighteen when she married him, thirty-three when she died after the birth of her ninth child. Walter did not marry again, but farmed successfully, educated his sons, speculated in land, and wrote letters to the government complaining about his taxes, also objecting to the township’s participation in a proposed railway—the interest being squandered, he says, for the benefit of capitalists in Britain.”
Nonetheless, there are recognizable Munro-nesses to these stories. Wives comment on husbands’ commitment and understanding. Parents observe their children’s shortcomings and flaws. The world’s boundaries stretch for youngsters who have not travelled beyond Ettrick parish before. And even though the details of women’s lives are less often discernible in the written records of centuries past, the female characters step forward in Munro’s second story.
The ship in “The View from Castle Rock” operates as the train so often does in Alice Munro’s stories (e.g. “To Reach Japan”, “Amundsen”, “Wild Swans”, “Train”). The narrative captures a group of characters in transition, between places and possibilities, promises and losses. And, as is so often the case in her fiction, the shade of a missed opportunity cast across a quiet loneliness.
“Years will pass before she will reappear in his mind. But when she does, he will find that she is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies. Sometimes he will even entertain himself with thoughts of what might have happened, had he taken up the offer. Most secretly, he will imagine a radiant recovery, Nettie’s acquiring a tall and maidenly body, their life together. Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret.”
Whether radiant recoveries or foolish thoughts, ultimately, the endings of these early stories are all known, by descendents and readers alike.
“Those travellers lie buried—all but one of them—in the graveyard of Boston Church, in Esquesing, in Halton County, almost within sight, and well within sound, of Highway 401 north of Milton, which at that spot may be the busiest road in Canada.”
In the meantime, the fictional connections between characters pull readers into the next generation’s memories and dreams, pleating the years between then and now, so that readers are less aware of the characters’ mortality as the pages turn.
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 first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Illinois”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.