For readers familiar with Alice Munro’s most recent collection, Dear Life, the title of this story will immediately recall “Night”, which she described as being “not quite” a story about her relationship with her father.
“Night” is part of a group of four tales, which she feels are “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life”.
And, yet, here is “Fathers”, which seems to declare it is the quintessential “not-quite story” about fathering in her oeuvre, appearing in a work said to be rooted in the “truth of a life”.
The story begins, however, with describing father not-her-own: Bunt Newcombe.
Well, technically, his house is described. In unflattering terms. And in this way we, as readers, gain an understanding of the man.
“(Though the house, like the man himself, had a look of bad temper. There were dark-green blinds pulled most of the way, or all the way, down on the windows, no curtains visible, and a scar along the front wall where the porch had been torn away. The front door which must at one time have opened onto that porch now opened three feet above weeds and rubble.)”
Carrying on the theme of town and country, from “Working for a Living”, the young Alice makes reference to other divisions of privilege as well, in discussing her relationship (is it a friendship?) with one of Bunt’s daughters.
“The first two years that Dahlia was at high school and I was still at public school we must have walked the same route, though we would not have walked together—it was not done, high school and public school students walking together.”
Dahlia’s relationship with her father is fraught. Bunt is bad tempereed, scarred and scarring, abusive to others and to himself.
“I kept thinking about whether she could really kill her father. I had a strange idea that she was too young to do that—as if killing somebody was like driving a car or voting or getting married, you had to be a certain age to manage it.”
How vulnerable is Dahlia truly? In some respects, terribly. But she is also afforded a kind of agency in this story. Even as the fates of other women, also vulnerable, albeit in different ways, are considered.
“Also the old women left on their own. Mrs. Currie. Mrs. Horne. Bessie Stewart.
Mrs. Currie raised dogs who raced about barking insanely all day in a wire pen, and at night were taken inside her house which was partly built into the bank of a hill, and must have been very dark and smelly. Mrs. Horne raised flowers, and her tiny house and yard in the summer were like an embroidery sampler—clematis vines, rose of Sharon, every sort of rose and phlox and delphinium. Bessie Stewart dressed smartly and went uptown in the afternoons to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee in the Paragon Restaurant. Though unmarried, she was said to have a Friend.”
Vulnerability and shame are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable for the young Alice.
“Living out at the end of that road as I did, and being easily embarrassed, yet a show-off, as I improbably was, I could never stand up for anybody who was being humiliated. I could never rise above a feeling of relief that it was not me.”
She had discovered, however, a way of negotiating troublesome territory, which masked her true feelings and allegiances.
“I had mastered a deadpan, even demure style that could make people laugh even when they thought they shouldn’t and that made it hard to tell whether I was innocent or malicious.”
But this is not all the protection that she needs. Her disguise does not solve the problems which simmer beneath the deadpan, even demure, surface.
“My mother said that it was a shame, what a man like that had made of his daughter.
It seems strange to me now that we could conduct this conversation so easily, without its seeming ever to enter our heads that my father had beaten me, at times, and that I had screamed out not that I wanted to kill him, but that I wanted to die.”
Readers familiar with “Royal Beatings” will realize that young Alice’s pain lives on, as did Rose’s: “”like a boiled egg…with the shell left on”.
Even peeling away the layer of shell, in order to read a single story, simply reminds us that the truth more likely resides in a concatenation of stories.
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 sixth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Lying Under the Apple Tree”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.