In a passage near the end of “Let It Pass”, Steven observes the precarious nature of memory.

He openly acknowledges its fallibility: “I have probably altered my recollection of that moment, changed its shape, refined it, as I still sometimes will tinker with shreds of a dream.”

So when he remembers Lily, a younger Lily (who probably falls somewhere between the second and third stories in this sequence of time), he questions its accuracy.

“I think that I saw, or was given to see, with a dream’s narrowed focus, a black-and-white postcard image of Lily on the edge of Peel’s couch, drawing on a stocking. For the first time I noticed how much she resembled the young Marlene, the Weimar Dietrich: the same half-shut eyes, the same dreamy and invulnerable gaze. She slid into the stocking, one perfect leg outstretched, the other bent and bare.”

This passage aligns beautifully with the opening of “In a War”, when readers meet younger Lily, when she is just a teenager and it’s considered scandalous that she has learned how to paint lines for stockings on the backs of her legs. (She learns this from a Polish girl, Steven’s aunt remarks, revealing the prejudices of a long-time resident of a homogeneous and isolated community.) Lily’s been expelled from a Catholic School twice (also revealing the ongoing struggle between Catholic and Protestant influences observed in Gallant’s Québécois stories).

Because I read these stories out of their intended order, this is where I met Lily, so I knew about her sass right from the start. But even if she hadn’t been sassy, the conventions surrounding male-female relations were restrictive (to say the least). And, in Gallant’s hands, comical.

“To my aunt the male nature was expected to combine the qualities of an Anglo-Canadian bank manager and a British war poet, which means to say a dead one. Folded inside the masculine psyche there had to be a bright yearning to suffocate face down in a flooded trench, to bleed from wounds inflicted by England’s enemies, even to be done in by a septic flea bite, if a patriotic case could be made against the flea.”

These expectations were not entirely out of step with the cultural norms. Husbands and wives had roles to play, and there wasn’t a lot of wriggle room. So, if a husband lingers after work to read a newspaper, perhaps it’s unsurprising.

“Their neighbours said Old Lady Quale gave him no peace to read the crime news at home. She thought a husband was supposed to keep moving, emptying the water pan under the icebox, examining for short circuits the loops of wiring that hung in fronds all over the house.”

And everyone does work hard in these households. Steven is aware of class issues: “Poverty and high principle seemed to occupy the same terrain – to my mind, a vacant lot.” Even if not everyone was: “Leo was not offended; he did not know he was poor. The Quales were better off than most of their neighbours.”

“In a War” reveals all sorts of tensions via a coming-of-age story that, in another writer’s hands, could be summed up as “boy meets girl”.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is part of the final trio of stories in Montreal Stories. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in for the remaining stories, or visit the previous posts as you create your own mini-Gallant-reading-project. Next up, in Montreal Stories: “The Concert Party”.