A few pages from the end of “White Dump”, just when the reader is wondering when the story’s title will be explained, Alice Munro offers it up, having anticipated the reader’s every twitch.
The leave-taking has already happened when the reader meets the characters in this story, though the circumstances remain unclear.
Like the lines of verse that close the story, “It is too late to talk of this now: it has been decided.”
Pulled from The Poetic Edda, these Old Norse poems were written in the thirteenth century, and it’s appropriate to include them here, not only for their content but because Lawrence once described his mother by saying that she “isn’t quite your average mom. She can read Old Norse. In fact, she is sort of an Old Norse.”
Laurence had been describing his mother to Isabel before they were married, and calling Sophie ‘Old Norse’ became “a joke between them, and a secret”.
Their daughter, Denise, overhears the jokes, when she is a girl, and is told not to tell Grandma about the game, but Denise wonders if her grandmother knows about it anyway.
Isabel wonders about the contrast between what she knows of Old Norse poetry and what she knows of Laurence’s mother.
“In those old poems she reads…there is the most terrible gore and hacking people up — women particularly, one slitting her own kids’ throats and mixing the blood in her husband’s wine. I read that. And then Sophie is such a pacifist and Socialist, isn’t it strange?”
“White Dump” is about what has already been decided, not only by Sophie, but also Isabel and Denise. Denise’s voice begins the tale, as she has come for a visit to her father’s home, which he shares with his wife, Magda (and, so, the reader realizes that he is no longer married to Isabel).
In conversation with the two of them, Denise refers to the day that she bought her father, Laurence, a ride in a small plane. Sophie’s voice picks up the thread and the narrative spirals back to the day in which she, too, rode in that plane, for the whole family was invited by the pilot to ride. Isabel recasts the same day from her perspective and moves slightly ahead in time.
Each of the narrators overtly considers events from her past, watershed moments that defined the course of her life following the decision made at that time. The focus is on what has been decided, what has been discarded, what it is too late to speak of.
Perhaps that is why one of the women thinks so longingly of a time even further in the past, a time before these decisions were made.
“Sometimes she thought of her childhood with a longing that seemed almost as perverse, and had to be kept almost as secret. A sagging awning in front of a corner store might remind her, the smell of heavy dinners cooking at noon, the litter and bare earth around the roots of a big urban shade tree.”
Although the structure is complex, with the layering between the stories within the story, the reader doesn’t experience the full breadth of that complexity for the tale is split cleanly into three parts. It is only when the pieces begin to snap together, that a fuller understanding of the framework of events and personalities takes shape.
Each of the following three quotes is pulled from a different woman’s tale, but the reader could draw lines between each of their experiences. Perhaps those lines could even be drawn back to the thirteenth century, to those ancient sagas of women, angry mothers and wives.
“Still shrinking, curled up into that sickening dot, but not vanishing, she held herself up there. She held herself up there, using all the powers she had, and said […] Look here, look there, see the shapes on the earth, see the shadows and the light going down in the water.”
“Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that’s over, that’s over. What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?”
Not only the past has an allure in this story; the imagined has an incredible power: the imagined, the fabricated, the desired.
“When they were walking toward the car, she had to make an effort not to turn around. She imagined that they turned at the same time, they looked at each other, just as in some romantic movie, operatic story, high-school fantasy. They turned at the same time, they looked at each other, they exchanged a promise that was no less real though they might never meet again. And the promise hit her like lightning, split her like lightning, though she moved on smoothly, intact.”
The pilot, too, spoke of lightning that he had seen while flying his plane on another occasion. (I am reminded of another pilot in another story, “How I Met My Husband”, from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974): another story of unexpected turns and desire.)
The view from above, in a plane, is not that different from the view of the past in the present.
Dawn Powell also writes in her diary of the experience that viewing life from above can have: “Plane over Caribbean the most tremendous experience I ever had — all trivial things seemed explained in mountains, ocean bottom and the still, frozen surf.” (March 6, 1948)
Some things stand out more than others, some are immediately familiar and identifiable, and others are barely recognizable. All that has been left behind, on the ground, has been discarded. One’s perspective on it is forever changed.
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. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the last in The Progress of Love. In early 2013, another Munro collection one story at a time: her most recent, Dear Life. (Afterwards, back to Friend of My Youth, which was published after Progress of Love, and which was my first introduction to Munro.)