Some writers might take a book to do it. Carol Shields did, in Swann. Timothy Findley did, in The Wars.
Alice Munro takes a short story to build a life from fragments left behind.
In this case, in “Meneseteung”, the fragments are culled from a book called Offerings (“Gold lettering on a dull-blue cover…author’s full name underneath: Almeda Joynt Roth”) and snippets from the local newspaper, the Vidette.
From such sources, the curious amongst us can “put things together”.
They use notebooks and gravestones and microfilm, “just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish”.
But, first, the verse. It follows a photograph (dated 1865, eight years prior to the book’s publication, in 1873) and a preface.
Even the verse’s titles contain clues, but the actual works contain actual information, though its nature remains uncertain.
“Perhaps Almeda was called Meda in the family, or perhaps she shortened her name to fit the poem.”
It is difficult to spot the line between artistry and identity. (But, in fact, later a discovery of a gravestone is detailed, a stone with ‘Meda” on it, which appears to answer this uncertainty.)
Some of the curious go so far as to include details commonly left out of imagined scenes.
Alice Munro mentions this in a later story (“Dear Life”): “Fresh manure was always around, but I ignored it, as Anne must have done at Green Gables.”
Perhaps in an effort to cultivate versimilitude, the re-imaginer of “Meneseteung” includes these details, bringing the scent of the past off the page:
“And, like an encampment, it’s busy all the time – full of people, who, within the town, usually walk wherever they’re going; full of animals, which leave horse buns, cow pats, dog turds that ladies have to hitch up their skirts for; full of the noise of building and of drivers shouting at their horses and of the trains that come in several times a day.”
Those horse buns, cow pats, and dog turds that the ladies — including Meda, no longer ALmeda — hitch their skirts for? They even attract flies.
“Strangers who don’t look so prosperous are taunted and tormented. Speculation surrounds all of them – it’s like a cloud of flies.”
But, speculation? Isn’t that what the curious re-imaginer is doing as well? Speculating?
And, if so, perhaps it’s not such a decent pastime. If it draws vermin to the scene.
“The young girl herself, being a decent girl, has never walked down to the last block or the swamp. No decent woman ever would.”
In “Meneseteung”, the last block and the swamp are afforded room on the pages of memory, or, at least, imagined memory.
Notebooks and gravestones and microfilm?
Perhaps, for some. Alice Munro uses fiction instead.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the third story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.