In “Saturday”, the mother had dreamed a different kind of life for her daughters.
In “Up North”, Dennis’ mother is dreaming of a different kind of life for herself.
She’s on a train, north of Montreal, heading for Abitibi, Quebec. That’s where Dennis’ father is working in the bush.
A man on the train asks enough questions to figure where the boy’s father fits into the “social hierarchy of the north”.
Because Mavis Gallant does not edge away from the question of class. And the father is part of a lower one, a casual labourer. (In contrast, the man on the train works as an engineer in the camp.)
Which explains why the boy’s mother is so uncomfortable while travelling, the conditions are constrained.
It’s impossible not to sympathize with her, when she is weeping in the train compartment, straining to change her clothing while lying down in the cramped space.
But it’s also impossible not to sympathize with her son, Dennis, who could use a little patience on this long and uncomfortable journey.
It’s familiar by now, Mavis Gallant’s fair-mindedness in her stories, this sense that each character experiences the world (within story and without) in a unique and powerful way.
In fact, there are many familiar elements in this short story (just seven pages long).
For instance, her characters have inhabited bush camps elsewhere, in one of my favourite stories, actually: “My Heart Is Broken”. And other Gallant characters have seen ghosts, most recently in “From the Fifteenth District” (six pages of hauntings). And in so many of her stories, mothers have been emotionally unstable (often reluctant or unwilling to mother) individuals who complicate their children’s lives.
“It’s not proper country,” Dennis’ mother observes of the northern Quebec landscape. But McLaughlin, the engineer, doesn’t find it too “bare” and, after the boy and his mother disembark, McLaughlin continues to travel further north, to potentially more improper places, even more “persistent sameness”.
But it’s not so much what is seen in this story which matters. Rather, what is not seen.
Readers don’t, for instance, see the war, which ended a little more than a year before. (It has taken that long for the mother and her son to leave Liverpool to come to Canada.) They don’t see McLaughlin’s motivation for his enquiries.
And, perhaps most importantly, readers do not see what Dennis sees either. Not the group of settlers, stocky men with packs on their backs. Not the trail of natives near a rail fence. McLaughlin speaks enough of the history of the area to explain an unexpectedly high death rate in years past, enough to make Dennis’ mother think twice about her belief that Dennis has been fabricating these tales. Enough to make Dennis understand that he can see what others cannot.
And isn’t that just what Mavis Gallant handles so deftly, all those things that are right in front of us, which we all-too-often overlook.
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 fourth 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: “Orphans’ Progress”.