The last story discussed here, “The Albanian Virgin”, leaves the reader with a single, haunting question: which version of the events is the reader intended to believe?
Readers are left with uncertainty. Even the narrator does not weigh heavily on either side, indeed, it is her doubt, or, at least, the space in which doubt can develop, which echoes as the story ends.
Alice Munro’s readers are accustomed to open-endedness, to a myriad of possible resolutions. “The Albanian Virgin” is no exception.
In “Open Secrets”, unanswered questions trumpet and wail, even at the end of the story.
Many of Alice Munro’s stories invite a re-read. Some even nudge readers towards re-reading, like “The Albanian Virgin”. But “Open Secrets”? It demands it.
Readers long to put their fingers on that “moment…an open secret, something not startling until you think of trying to tell it”.
Mary Johnstone is in her ’60s when it happens. She is leading the C.G.I.T. (the Canadian Girls in Training) on their annual hike to the Falls on the Peregrine River.
Aside: I can’t say much about what happens, can’t discuss the open secret, without spoilers. But talk of the story’s setting is spoiler-free, so I digress.
I can’t think of a waterfall in the area about which Alice Munro is writing which fits the description in the text: the falls about six or seven feet high, falling over limestone shelves, with a hard-falling curtain of water you can stand behind.
The falls near Goderich (Walley in Munro country), like the Maitland Falls, are basically water rushing over large rocks in a river, without a drop. That doesn’t fit my idea of the setting.
There is a waterfall near Arkona that would provide a place for the C.G.I.T. girls to walk behind, but it doesn’t strike me as sufficiently shelf-like. It’s more like a cove, with smaller falls alongside.
I like to imagine that the girls are hiking to Ball’s Falls, further along the Escarpment, with its single shelf-like drop, its neat-and-tidy falling curtain, its shallow pools warmed by the sun against the rock.
And this suits my imagining because the area is known for visitors’ sightings of Peregrine falcons seasonally (though in early September, not June).
The hike is an annual event. Maureen, the narrator of “Open Secrets”, followed the same route when Mary Johnstone led the troupe twenty years earlier. The girls stepped in the footsteps of the girls who came before.
But what of “poor Heather Bell”? She does not return from that trip.
Mary Johnstone allows her to go back and fetch her sweater. “Yes, but hurry. Hurry and catch up.”
A girl missing. Although she was an “innocent” is something debated by some townsfolk, some of the girls.
“Now the search parties were out. Douds was closed, so that every man who wanted to go could go. Dogs had been added. There was talk of dragging the river downstream from the Falls.”
And Mary Johnstone was in charge. Mary, who “devoted her spare time to girls, often saying that she had never met a bad one, just some who were confused”.
But Mary had no children of her own. Nor did Maureen, the story’s narrator, girl-hiker from another time.
Depending on one’s perspective, perhaps they were not fully grown-up, adult, unchanged.
“Having children changed you. It gave you the necessary stake in being grown-up, so that certain parts of you — old parts — could be altogether eliminated and abandoned. Jobs, marriage didn’t quite do it — just made you act as if you’d forgotten things.”
But there is much to be said on the matter of care-taking in this story. On the ways in which one meets the needs of another (or, falls short — sorry). Boils, burns and headaches, barking dogs and hissy fits: there is much talk of damage as well.
What choices are made — by the innocent, by the experienced — which lead to pain and loss, grief and confusion.
What knowledge is shared — about saviors and visitations, about boys and urges — which leads to wisdom and uncertainty.
What happens in another “life just as long and complicated and strange and dull as this one”.
Readers might want to put their fingers on that moment, that open secret, but, instead, those fingers will hover above the text, dallying, circling, querying.
“Open Secrets” is a puzzle.
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 this is the fourth story in Open Secrets. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.