Beginning with an arrival and ending with a departure, readers might think “Amundsen” a more conventionally told tale.

Random House, 2012

(Thinking about the last story, “To Reach Japan”, which began with a departure and ended with an arrival, I mean.)

And, yet, both this arrival and departure actually unfold in the past; Vivien Hyde is now reflecting upon these events from a point in later life.

So perhaps readers are just as much caught in the space between, as they were in this collection’s first story.

Nonetheless, readers of Munro’s stories will be familiar with this woman-looking-back perspective.

(Indeed, the entire collection Who Do You Think You Are? is structured in this way, with Rose even wrestling with some of the same questions that haunt Vivien.)

Some might long to feel a greater sense of connection with the woman at the heart of this narrative, but she is not a woman with whom readers can cozy up.

Vivien is set apart from her story, largely because she is still evaluating it, still constructing and re-constructing.

She is, as yet, unsure whether anything has changed between ‘then’ and ‘now’ and while she is considering the possibilities, observing from afar, she appears cool and distanced.

This suits the story, however, for readers meet Vivien sitting on a bench, waiting for a train to take her to the ‘San’, the sanitorium, where she will teach the children who have tuberculosis.

She is a newcomer, seated on the margins. Readers meet her at a train station and leave her at a train station, but she leaves the ‘san’ as much a stranger as she arrives and perhaps readers know her only slightly better.

(I wonder if the sanitorium — also spelled sanatorium and sanitarium — was modelled on the one built  north of Toronto in Gravenhurst, but I am only guessing.)

This is not a welcoming world for Vivien. She arrives on a “raw day”, in “air like ice” into a world that seems, at first glance, more welcoming to men. The men who work in the sawmill fit right in, and even the other women seem to have adapted to a way of life that strikes Vivien as completely disorienting.

It’s northern Ontario. Not just north of Toronto (where she has an apartment on Avenue Road, a nice neighbourhood, certainly) but northern Ontario. “Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears.”

But this landscape? Vivien admires it. It is an “immense enchantment”. She believes herself invisible there. (And, later, she longs for that.) And perhaps, when she is freshly taking it in, when she is comparing it to what she has read of such scenes in Tolstoy’s novels, she believes she will be happy there.

Alongside this peace, however, there is an undercurrent of discord. The enchantment is countered by the “smell of winter clothing that never dried out”. The birch bark appears white at first, but it is actually greyish yellow or greyish blue or grey. And the love that Vivien believes that she has found in Amundsen is also not as pure as she thought.

But she and Dr. Fox do have some things in common; they like books and know things — like the rivers in South America — and she has conversations with him that she cannot imagine having with anybody else. (One could argue Vivien’s purity as well: certainly she knows that she should not discuss the things she finds exciting about the doctor.)

She observes that he poses “questions like traps” and she believes that she answers inappropriately, “another trap sprung”, but she has no friends and there is something compelling about his quintessential maleness.

He has an easy concentration, economical movements, uses a striking male-to-male tone when speaking to other men (and, presumably, a male-to-female tone when speaking to Vivien); she admires his grip, his abstraction, his orderly home, the firm pressure of his hands against her back, his “male unawareness”.

Sure, she knows the trick of tight rolling — how to pack clothing in a suitcase without wrinkling, but being a woman also involves whirling and prancing, a gaggle of giggling and commotion, embroidery and heart-shaped cookies, crepe dresses and a “velvet stillness”.

She might be better off as a “woman with a man”. And, so, perhaps Dr. Fox is brutal, but he is “brutal for her”. And she is flattered, although she is ashamed to be flattered. (Or, was she only ashamed at being flattered afterwards, after she has departed?)

There is an edge to this possibility. The sign for skate sharpening, the doctor’s scalpel: “Every turn is like a shearing-off of what’s left of my life.”

And there are barriers, like the broken-down steps blocked off with an ‘x’  made of wooden planks and the brightly coloured gifts tossed out on the snow.

And there is a devastating decision. She hopes he might have a “change of mind”. (Really, she hopes for a change of heart, I think.)

But ultimately Vivien departs.

This might be for the best, of course.

She leaves behind the “austere and northerly”, a “black-and-white” world under a “high dome of clouds”.

She moves into a world with “pale spring sunlight”.

And, “maybe she really is a person who can deal recklessly with humiliation”.

Perhaps she is better off without the trickster, the cunning Dr. Fox.

She, Vivien Hyde, perhaps only a skin in the end, might be lucky to have left that brutality behind.

But if even she is still posing this question, it’s clearly unclear to readers whether she believes this or not.


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, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the second in Dear Life, with next Wednesday reserved for “Leaving Maverley” and the following Sunday for “Gravel”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.