Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) V

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.



  1. Buried In Print June 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Leaving a comment after rereading Sheila Munro’s Lives of Mothers & Daughters (2001): “After our trip to Wingham and Oakville in 1961, my mother wrote ‘The Peace of Utrecht,’ the first of what she has called her ‘breakthrough stories,’ She had never been able to use personal material the way she does here. The idea for the story came from an incident that took place at her grandmother’s house in Wingham. While she was visiting there, her grandmother took her upstairs and got out all her mother’s clothes to see if she wanted them.”

  2. Sandra March 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    In A Trip to the Coast there was one little gem that stood out for me which I tucked away as a keeper: “Nobody had spoken for this day yet; its purity astonished her.”
    The Peace of Utrecht is what Coral Ann Howells in Alice Munro: Contemporary World Writers calls “home teritory” for Munro. Howells also calls the plot “the archetypal Gothic plot with its key motifs of the ‘unspeakable’ and ‘live burial’ hinges on the absence or the death of the mother.” The sadness so characteristic of Munro is that there is no peace for Maddy at the end in spite of the title. Howells connects the mother’s voice calling out to a traditional Gothic motif going back to the early Gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance which makes me want to locate a copy. Apparently Munro reworks this theme again in ‘The Ottawa Valley‘ written 15 years later so it will be interesting to reread that story.
    In Dance of the Happy Shades I felt that Munro did a very good job of making us feel the truth of the “poor Miss Marsalles” statement which had almost become part of Miss Marsalles’ name in any conversation concerning her. Then Dolores Boyle plays the Dance of the Happy Shades and the music becomes “that one communique from the other country where she (Miss Marsalles) lives” and the onlookers are rendered speechless. Miss Marsalles is someone they can no longer dismiss or patronize. I think it was a good title choice for the hopeful and/or positive quality in its ending.

    • Buried In Print March 9, 2011 at 7:19 pm - Reply

      I copied that bit out, too, Sandra. Definitely a keeper! And its follow-up: “She had a delicate premonition of freedom and danger, like a streak of dawn across that sky.” I like the contrast between ‘freedom’ and ‘danger’ which, it seems, could apply to so many of AM’s stories. I also copied out the last sentence, but sharing that one would be a true Spoiler!

      It seems to me that I’ve seen “The Peace of Utrecht” anthologized quite often, which would fit with the comment you’ve found. I’ve been thinking that I’d like to do some supplementary reading alongside these short stories: are there particular sources you’ve sought out?

      Hmmm, that’s true: the Del Jordan stories (“Walker Brothers Cowboy” and “Images”) and maybe “The Shining Houses” have kinda neutral endings, and depending how you interpret the kiss in “Sunday Afternoon” it could fall in there, but a lot of them pack a punch at the end that leaves you breathless, uncomfortable if not completely disheartened.

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