What is it about a title story? It always feels, to me, like the key to the collection. And while it’s true that sometimes a title story is my favourite in a collection, other times, as with “Dance of the Happy Shades”, I wondered why it was selected to bestow its title on the collection. What was it about Miss Marsalles and her piano recitals (er, parties) that set apart this story from the rest?
But I’m getting ahead of myself because first there was “A Trip to the Coast” and “The Peace of Utrecht” to think about.
Each has some interesting older female characters to consider. The grandmother in “A Trip to the Coast” is 78, which she confides to her grand daughter May, although she apparently has kept this fact to herself her entire life. It turns out that there is a significance to her having shared that bit, but readers don’t learn that until later in the story.
Meantime, the grandmother has suggested that the two of them take a trip to the coast. The idea conjures up lovely images for May, who is undoubtedly bored silly in Black Horse, which seems too small to even be called a town, consisting of three houses and a store, a cemetery and an old livery shed. But that’s all the town needs for this story, as it turns out. (And all this story needs is a signature-Alice-Munro ending, as it turns out.)
In “The Peace of Utrecht”, we are introduced to two older female characters Aunt Annie (the emotional one) and Auntie Lou (who isn’t), alongside two sisters in their 30s, Maddy (the daughter who stayed to look after their infirm mother) and Helen (who didn’t).
We meet the older women through Helen’s eyes. She observes:
“As I watch my entertaining old aunts I wonder if old people play such stylized and simplified roles with us because they are afraid that anything more honest might try our patience; or if they do it out of delicacy — to fill the social time — when in reality they feel so far away from us that there is no possibility of communicating with us at all.”
And so it seems is the case, also, with the older female character of Miss Marsalles in “Dance of the Happy Shades”. It seems as though there are many things which she simply does not trouble to explain, perhaps because she simply believes it’s impossible to put them into words.
For her annual party, Mrs. Marsalles might be found “waiting in the entrance hall with the tiled floor and the dark, church-vestry smell, wearing rouge, an antique hairdo adopted only on this occasion, and a floor-length dress of plum and pinkish splotches that might have been made out of old upholstery material, startled no one but the youngest children.”
But that was when the party was held in a larger home on a street in Rosedale. Then Miss Marsalles moves to Bank Street. And then she moved to Bala Street. Which is where this year’s party is taking place. And the smaller, significantly-less-well-to-do address is only one aspect of the challenges of this annual event. The sandwiches: oh my, have you seen the sandwiches? ::amplifed tsk-ing::
At first I couldn’t figure out why this story was selected to share its title with the collection, but now that I’ve thought about it, here is my clue:
“But it seems that the girl’s playing like this is something she always expected, and she finds it natural and satisfying; people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when they actually encounter one.”
Just as Miss Marsalles spots a miracle in the everyday, Alice Munro points to the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her stories remind us that miracles happen every day. One little girl gives the ring from her Cracker Jack box to another little girl. A gate is left open so that a horse can escape slaughter. A boy asks a girl to dance. A woman finds herself a room in which to write stories. Not a lot of fuss in these stories, but they sparkle all the same.
Walker Brothers Cowboy; The Shining Houses; Images JAN19
Thanks for the ride; The Office; An Ounce of Cure (above) JAN26
The Time of Death; Day of the Butterfly; Boys and Girls FEB16
Postcard; Red Dress – 1946; Sunday Afternoon FEB23
A Trip to the Coast; The Peace of Utrecht; Dance of the Happy Shades (above)
Next up in the Must-Read-Everything Alice Munro project?
Beginning on March 9th, Lives of Girls and Women:
The Flats Road; Heirs of the Living Body MAR9
Princess Ida; Age of Faith MAR16
Changes and Ceremonies; Lives of Girls and Women MAR23
Baptizing; Epilogue: The Photographer MAR30
Read them on the bus, in the waiting room, standing in line, in the bath, with lemon cakes, after dinner, before breakfast. Short stories fit perfectly into small pockets of reading time.