At first glance, it seems as though who is more – or less – Canadian matters in this story.
Because I am Canadian, I latch on to the idea of whether Douglas’ father is more “reticent” than his mother, whether he is “cautious and single-minded”, whether I myself exhibit any or all of these qualities. (Likely, yes. And Peggy in the story? The kind of Canadian girl Douglas deliberately avoided? I’m probably another Peggy.)
This matter of Canadian/not-so Canadian seems particularly important given the question of French-Canadian/English-Canadian identity in “Orphans Progress”. But soon this matter recedes.
Anyway, it’s not simple: this matter of saying that I am Canadian. It all depends where my story begins.
Because it is also true that I am a settler in the homeland of many indigenous communities, a settler descended from English and Irish settlers. I’m squatting on land currently called Ontario, in a city built on land which was the subject of a treaty signed by the Mississauga of the New Credit, a document they likely viewed more like a lease than a sale.
So where does my story begin? As a matter of justice, it begins before I arrived. As a matter of documentation, my birth certificate states that I was born in Windsor, Ontario. As a matter of heart, Toronto feels like home to me in a way that no other city has.
My story might begin in a dozen places, at least. Where I choose to say that it begins, in a given moment, says more about my choosing than anything else.
Mavis Gallant names this story after a station which served as a depot after WWII, where family could be united with soldiers who were returning home.
But by the time that we meet Douglas on the pages of this story, the station no longer exists. (Readers get to know him in Katharine Moser’s home, where he is staying for the summer.)
Douglas’ mother went to this station expecting to end her relationship with Douglas’ father. (This is before Douglas is born. Before the idea of Douglas.)
Douglas’ father has survived and is expecting a beginning. (Douglas isn’t expecting anything yet. But later he resents the story surrounding his conception and the language he uses — words like ‘besieged’, ‘invaded’, ‘violent’, ‘dominated’, ‘wrenched’ — reveals the conflict this embodies for him.)
This question of Douglas’ beginning is important. Mostly because he seems to be moving away from this idea of his beginning. Once a child prodigy, he finds himself, at twenty years old, having grown into some other stage of life. But, if he is no longer beginning, what is he about? He is, yet, a long way from a middle.
Just as it seems a matter of some importance, this question of Canadian-ness, so, too, do other questions: of artist and muse, of student and pupil, of women and men, of identification and admiration, and of city- and country-dwellers. Because readers are immediately immersed in the perspective of a besieged narrator, we cannot help but be drawn into a system of extremes, of either/or rather than both/and.
Here, for instance, viewed through Douglas’ eyes, we see Katherine Moser (“companion of genius, generator of talent, dispenser of comfort, and mind reader as well) and Sabine (“the slut, the innocent, the admirer of her own body, the good-natured, the stupid, the avaricious, the maker and seeker of love”).
But extremes are not always opposed. And even though Douglas is not prepared to embrace the kind of complexity that exists in the middle of life, he catches a glimpse of the complications.
“Owing to a mistake in time, he was having a conversation with a very young girl who was somehow old enough to be his mother.”
When summer ends, however, he returns to the city and discovers a letter from Katharine, a letter which was mailed to him before he left to stay with her in the country.
It is something from a beginning, which only appears at the ending of the story.
A letter in which Katharine observes: “Flower petals are strewn on the grass, and it is like the end of a season instead of the beginning.”
After nearly forty pages, Douglas remains a slippery character. Perhaps even more so because he has been inhabiting a place he finds uncomfortable (in a broader sense, the country-side and, in a narrower sense, a building last inhabited by Katharine’s now-deceased husband).
But even as we readers are ending our experience with this story, Douglas is not ending but beginning.
He has reached some kind of decision which will allow this ending to be viewed as a beginning.
If only the story were to begin in – and be named for – some other place.
How might you title the short story of your life?
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the tenth story in Home Truths. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “In Youth Is Pleasure”.