On the list of 10 Perfect Alice Munro sentences, recently selected by CBC, this is the first: “Every year, when you’re a child, you become a different person.”
It begs the question, “When does one stop becoming somebody new every year?”
Perhaps after an event like the incident described in this story, which isn’t shared with readers until the story is almost over.
Just as the other person involved leaves the question of her repentance right to the last minute, when she is literally on her death-bed.
Marlene’s trip to Guelph, to execute the dying woman’s final instructions, is one of my favourite parts of this story. (If I was still a child I would have been ten different people since the time when I called Guelph home, but I still love it there.)
“The directions were not very clear but I was told that it was on a big hill and I could find it from anywhere in the heart of town.
Of course that was not true, though I could see it from almost anywhere. A collection of delicate spires rising from four fine towers. A beautiful building where I had expected only a grand one. It was grand too, of course, a grand dominating cathedral for such a relatively small city (though someone told me later it was not actually a cathedral).”
Marlene, however, only had one destination in the town. She needed to speak to someone, a particular man, who would/could play a role in easing a young-woman-grown-old’s guilt. When she cannot locate the gentleman, she has to make a decision, whether to stay overnight or to return to Toronto (whether to remain in the past or to return to her present).
This decision is more difficult than it might seem, partly because it is not as simple as it seems either. This is not a matter of an errand, but a matter of restoration and reparation, and not just for one woman but for two.
“Was I not tempted, during all this palaver? Not once? You’d think that I might break open, be wise to break open, glimpsing that vast though tricky forgiveness. But no. It’s not for me. What’s done is done. Flocks of angels, tears of blood, notwithstanding.”
It’s ironic that Marlene and Charlene were considered twins as girls but then worked hard to catalogue their differences, details like which girl tanned and which girl freckled in the sun.
Divisions were vitally important, because the incident revolves around the perception of seemingly insurmountable differences between young girls.
It’s not hard to see how this thinking comes about, and there is a timelessness to the girls’ consideration of difference. Children bully like this still. Adults bully like this too.
Some of the divisions that Munro’s readers discover on the pages of this story seem familiar. “The town we lived in was too small to have residential divisions that amounted to anything, but I suppose that as far as there were divisions, that house was right on the boundary between decent and fairly dilapidated.”
Girls who grew up on the margins of town and country appear frequently in the author’s short stories and there are other kinds of borders and boundaries discussed as well.
One charming detail, which arouses many childhood memories for me, too, is the matter of leaf houses.
“That is, I raked up and carried armloads of leaves fallen from the maple tree that held the swing, and I dumped and arranged these leaves into a house plan.”
How distressing for the young-Marlene, when a girl destroys the borders of her rooms, obliterates the carefully laid piles of “furniture” and “walls”. (It also used to drive me crazy when other children wanted to put the furnishings in my FisherPrice village in the wrong places. In play, at least, one should be able to construct as one sees fit, with one’s own toys, er leaves.)
This story offers one of the most convincing (and disturbing) portrayals of pre-teen girls, but presents it in such a way that readers can’t help but empathize with the characters. The kind of vulnerability described is one which is felt at various stages of life, perhaps interminably.
“But it was partly that the time was coming very soon when all this would be over, the routines would be broken up, and we would be fetched by our parents to resume our old lives, and the counsellors would go back to being ordinary people, not even teachers. We were living in a stage set about to be dismantled, and with it all the friendships, enmities, rivalries that had flourished in the last two weeks. Who could believe it had been only two weeks?”
A different person every fall. A different person every few days. And when, really, does this end? Or, does it?
“It’s strange how distant and unimportant that seemed, only a starting point. As anything in childhood appeared to me then. Because of the journey I had made since, the achievement of adulthood. Safety.”
How safe have Marlene and Charlene been since adulthood, really? Well, they are alive, if only just barely. Is it perhaps more a question of their having declared themselves “safe”. Of their having made a decision to think of themselves in that way.
“The whole business probably took no more than two minutes. Three? Or a minute and a half?”
Every minute and a half, you become a new person?
Sometimes. Always. Never.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the eighth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Wood”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.