Many of the themes which resurface in Alice Munro’s fiction play an important role in “Working for a Living”.
One of the first which strikes readers is the question of town versus country, which plays such a predominant role in both Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?
“In those days people in town did generally look upon the people from the country as more apt to be slow-witted, tongue-tied, uncivilized, than themselves, and somewhat more docile in spite of their strength. And farmers saw people who lived in towns as having an easy life and being unlikely to survive in situations calling for fortitude, self-reliance, hard work.”
Examining the different kinds of work which her father did, in her living memory, affords Alice Munro an oppotunity to consider his position in this regard. And to find, strangely, that he straddles the divide.
He does farm — mink and foxes and, later, turkeys — but he also works at the Foundry and, much later, he writes. With the latter in mind, he brings another familiar theme into play, the comforts but also limitations of such presumptions.
Here is a man who manages to embody some of the qualities reserved for farmers as well as those reserved for townsfolk and, then, just to complicate things, he’s more bookish than the average man. For even if men are sometimes afforded the opportunity to be bookish, it is obviously considered surprising that her father would lean in this direction.
“Now—if the woman with the dustballs under the beds had read the heavy books, would she have been forgiven? I don’t believe so. It was women who judged her, and women judged women more harshly than they did men. Also, it must be remembered that my grandfather got his work done first—his woodpiles were orderly and his stable shipshape. In no point of behavior did his reading affect his life. ”
Here, too, is another related-but-not-reliably-aligned matter, this question of different standards for men and women: between and among the sexes, the sets of expectations which confine/protect members.
Complexity is built right in. As delicate as a divide can be, there are individuals who find another way of being, sometimes even more dramatically than her father did.
“A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?
Even here, where men and women mostly took whatever was cut out for them, some men had managed it.”
Just as Rose grew up in a home which straddled the line between town and country (in WDYTYA?), the home described in”Working for a Living” occupies that in-between as well.
“To the east was the town, the church towers and the tower of the Town Hall visible when the leaves were off the trees, and on the mile or so of road between us and the main street there was a gradual thickening of houses, a turning of dirt paths into sidewalks, an appearance of a lone streetlight, so that you might say we were at the town’s farthest edges, though beyond its legal municipal boundaries.”
And even when rules and expectations are rigidly defined, there is often a way to circumvent the well-trodden paths. Behaviour which is considered eccentric in one sphere might be displayed in such a way as to reduce the risk of offense to onlookers.
“For a while, maybe all through the fifties, it was considered eccentric for any girl to be riding a bicycle after she was old enough, say, to wear a brassiere. But to get to the Foundry I could travel on back roads, I didn’t have to go through town.”
There is, however, a question, too, of how much can be adequately remembered about times past. It seems likely that one would remember general practices, like whether or not one felt comfortable riding a bicycle after a certain age, but particular details are easily mis-remembered or lost.
Backroads and crossroads might be easily muddled. This is true, too, when the author is considering, in later years, the route that her father travelled on a particular journey when she was a girl, riding as a passenger alongside.
““But why would he go this way to Muskoka?” my husband said. “Wouldn’t he go along No. 9 and then go up on Highway 11?”
He was right. I wondered whether I could have been mistaken. It could have been another store at another crossroads where we bought the gas and the ice cream.”
Perhaps there is no more quintessentially-Munro quality to a work than the spiralizing of time, its intersection with memory and fabrication. A passage, like this one, can contain a variety of pasts and futures, enough to temporarily disorient even a careful reader.
“And my mother must have been looking further into the future, thinking of how she could expand, which other hotels she could try this in, how many more capes and scarves they should get made up next year, and whether this could develop into a year-round business.
She couldn’t have foreseen how soon the Americans were going to get into the war, and how that was going to keep them at home, how gas rationing was going to curtail the resort business. She couldn’t foresee the attack on her own body, the destruction gathering within.”
How trustworthy is memory? How differently might we later look upon things which we accepted, unthinkingly, at some earlier point in our lives?
With this in mind, how can we judge which time of our lives is the best? When the men at the foundry discuss this, a variety of answers are entertained. But the father responds with what might be consistently the best answer, a variation on “now”.
“They asked him why.
He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.”
And, yet, in typically Munro-fashion, this man’s story collapses in upon another man’s story, as he reminisces about when he was a boy watching his grandfather.
These nesting stories coallesce to present a perspective which belongs wholly and completely to the author.
And of course she has questions, as we all do, wondering from whence we have come.
“Then he said, not so lightly, ‘You get into things, you know. You sort of don’t realize what you’re getting into.'”
That’s what it’s like, isn’t it. You get into things. And then other things happen. And, really, that’s the whole story.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fifth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Fathers”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.