In searching for an image for the last story discussed here, “A Wilderness Station”, I came upon a wonderfully long and chatty Paris Review interview with Alice Munro.*
Something she says about her reading came to mind when I had finished “Spaceships Have Landed”.
“Reading was my life really until I was thirty. I was living in books. The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.”
The thing is, I’ve read the story before, but when I came to rereading, all I could think was that I didn’t remember any spaceships.
I wonder, now, about that freakish bit, she mentions, about the spaceships.
And about how ordinary, really, the story is: no aircraft required.
But there is Eunie Morgan, freakish and marginal.
“But now she was five feet nine or ten, drab and mannish in her slacks and bandannas, with big feet in what looked like men’s shoes, a hectoring voice, and an ungainly walk – she had gone right from being a child to being a character.”
The story is, more properly, Rhea rather than Eunie. Readers see Eunie via Rhea’s gaze. And Rhea’s gaze internalizes all of society’s harshest judgements.
Being one of those who lives on the margins herself, but certainly not as openly freakish a ‘character’ as Eunie Morgan, Rhea’s perspective is sharp and honed.
Rhea, however, can pass. She has, in fact, established a relationship with Billy Doud. Of the Doud family.
Billy doesn’t understand the distinctions that Rhea identifies readily, intuitively.
“People close to the bottom, like Eunie Morgan, or right at the top, like Billy Doud, showed a similar carelessness, a blunted understanding.”
It’s a mystery. Of the sort that brushes up against spaceships landing.
“On the night of Eunie Morgan’s disappearance, Rhea was sitting in the bootlegger’s house at Carstairs – Monk’s – a bare, narrow wooden house, soiled halfway up the walls by the periodic flooding of the river.”
When Billy brings Rhea by, he announces to Mrs Monk that he’s brought one of her neighbours.
Billy doesn’t understand that although neither Rhea nor Mrs Monk inhabit the bottom or the top, they inhabit their own distinct middling spaces in the social hierarchy.
“…she lived up the hill on the chicken farm – not understanding that her family didn’t consider themselves neighbors to the people in these houses, or that her [Rhea’s] father would never in his life have sat down to drink here.”
Billy recognizes that there are distinctions, but he adopts a liberal-minded perspective, exhibits what he might call respect for the working man.
“And all the time Billy Doud said how much he admired Rhea’s father. Men like your father, he said. Who work so hard. Just to get along. And never expect any different. And are so decent, and even-tempered, and kindhearted. The world owes a lot to men like that.”
In this context, Billy is The World. On that spectrum, inhabiting that end of it, Eunie lives in Outer Space.
“Eunie was on her way home when Rhea spotted her. Eunie was surprised to find the riverbank path not so clear, as she was expecting, but all grown up with brambles. When she pushed out into her own yard, she had scratches and smears of blood on her arms and forehead, and bits of leaves caught in her hair. One side of her face was dirty, too, from being pressed against the ground.”
There is a lot of talk amongst the town folk after Eunie’s return. Billy doesn’t do much talking. He also doesn’t do much drinking. But Wayne, the young man with whom Rhea spent most of that night, says too much. “Drunkards speak truth.”
In between what is said and what is left unspoken, the aliens run their tests and the freakish are tested.
Do you have any Alice Munro in your stack to be tested? Do you have any of her favourite authors in common?
* The Paris Review Interview, Issue 137, with Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson, Summer 1994
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 seventh 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.