Just when I was thinking that I’ve been talking a lot about theme and structure with these stories, and not so much about characterization, along comes a story like “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” to make the point.
There are only 21 pages in this story; that’s not even one page per year, and that’s one clue that this story is about character, not plot, or at least not plot in the smoking-gun sense of the word.
The first page is devoted to Mrs. Cross’s first memory of Mrs. Kidd and readers learn of Mrs. Kidd’s first memory of Mrs. Cross on the next page.
One has “dark, thick bangs cut straight across her forehead, and her pinafore sticking up in starched wings, reciting a poem with the greatest competence and no hitch of memory”.
The other has “a bread red face and a dress with a droopy hem, and thick fair braids, and a bellowing voice”.
Readers might think, at this point, and especially after the next, long paragraph, which catalogues all the differences between the two women (who are not, as people mistakenly assume, similar, despite having known each other all those years) that it will be hard to differentiate between them.
After all, there are only 21 pages in this story, and 80 years of experience to cram into them, er, actually, 160 years, because they are two different people (or, perhaps, 180 years because there is a friendship of sorts and another 60 shared years to chronicle in there too).
Although all of that must feel like it belongs to two other women, now that they are both living in Hilltop Home.
Mrs. Cross has been there for three years and two months (at this time of life, as when you are very young, months matter) and Mrs. Kidd has been there three years less a month.
“This is the only place in the county, everything gets dumped here. After a while it doesn’t bother you.”
The story’s focus shifts to life in Hilltop, the differences between the two women’s rooms there described, in more detail than the broad strokes of differences in their life experiences.
Characters come forth. There is no way that readers will confuse these two women. In a handful of pages, they stand distinct.
(From the reader’s perspective, there is a broader irony at work here, for it seems certain that the staff in this institution who observe these women daily would not recognize them as distinct, but simply two of many needy residents therein.)
“It was like school here. People paired off, they had best friends. The same people always sat together in the dining-room. Some people had nobody.”
And then? A stranger comes to town.
Well, not literally. But one day Mrs. Cross takes notice of a red-haired man who is only fifty-nine years old and has had a stroke.
“A distraction occurred.”
And I know that I said that this story wasn’t rooted plot, but things do happen; the heart of “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” is in their characters, but the reader can’t help but want to know what happens, once Jack appears in the narrative.
Once the scene is set, the “action” proceeds chronologically. Suiting a literary representation of institutional life, it’s difficult to understand the time frame of the story, as one day blurs into the next for the women (and Jack).
The language is simple and the dialogue (which is more abundant than in other stories) moves the story along at a steady pace, but readers read on because they are invested in these two characters.
Are you reading any Alice Munro these days?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, beginning with with Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You and Who Do You Think You Are? (The Beggar Maid). I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
The next in The Moons of Jupiter is “Hard-Luck Stories”; one story will be discussed on each Thursday. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story.