This Alice Munro story might serve as a sixteen-page synposis for why some high-school students came to hate the idea of reading Canadian authors.
If you weren’t raised on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books?
If you weren’t an obsessive listener to weekly episodes of Winter Without Salt read aloud by your third-grade teacher?
You might not want to know whether it’s better to build a brick chuimney in the centre of a settler’s home or to position it at one end.
You might not care how long it took to travel between the communities of Shakespeare and Stratford in southwestern Ontario (a distance covered in about 15 minutes in a car nowadays).
But there’s something which fascuinates me about the layers with which a home can be constructed, literally and metaphorically, as one moves from foundations to furnishings.
And even more interesting is the human layer of strife and resentment which Munro captures in this pioneer tale.
Didn’t you wonder what happened when there weren’t enough men to join together for a barn-raising?
Did you adjust your plans to make a smaller barn? Or wait until the settlement grew to the size which would support (literally) a greater number of beams?
What happened when a stranger was required to hoist a joist?
In “The Wilds of Morris Township”, engaging strangers in business previously confined to familial exchanges of labour is a thorny matter.
And expecting your female relatives to serve potatoes to men they hadn’t grown up with? Beyond the pale.
These are the kinds of complications which emerge in this story, alongside the question of the kinds of day labour one could find in the Blythe area in the mid-1800s (which might be less interesting for some readers, especially those whose ancestors did not make a journey similiar to Munro’s).
Although the locus of this collection is a particular set of family members, the focus of this story feels like setting more than characterization, mainly because the process of establishing a home in this time and place required a particularly intense relationship between man and land.
Mind you, the people for whom this countryside was/is a homeland, the native dwellers, are afforded only a marginalized presence in this chronicle, represented by Becky (whose father was a white man) in the last story. These Laidlaws are settlers with rights to land (no mention of or — likely — thought of treaties) and plans to populate, who viewed this land as their future homeland.
But within their comfortable status of wrested privilege and ownership, there is a seemingly imposible amount of work to be done to establish roots in this new territory.
It’s no wonder there is more talk of plaster than of pleasure: these men built and sealed while the women prepared the food which would fuel the next labourious chores and swept the makeshift floors.
In this atmosphere of weariness, one man dreams of something more: a two-storey house. He stands out, as much of a mythic figure, perhaps, as the collection’s first Ettrick man, Will O’ Phaup, in this “new” land.
With this tale, the core characters exist in the memory of the author’s father: these are folks whose existence can be traced through memories and impressions as well as through documents and diaries.
Whether or not this affects the reader’s degree of engagement likely depends upon the degree of interest inspired by details revolving around shingles and planing, but there is also the matter of a mysterious packet left on a doorstop on Hallowe’en.
Who takes up house together is a scandalous matter, too, in the author’s fiction. As is a man’s understanding more than a woman about what lies beyond her innocent understanding of a neighbour’s judgement on an intimate relationship. The issue of one’s wanting a two-storey house where a single floor would do. Thwarting an older family member’s expectations. An unexpected death in the wilderness.
“The Wilds of Morris County”: not an untouched wilderness after all.
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 fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Working for a Living”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.