So many of the risks in “Deep-Holes” are either averted or declared meaningless.
“Sally packed devilled eggs—something she hated to take on a picnic, because they were so messy.”
Nobody ate the devilled eggs anyway, so it didn’t matter how messy they were.
“Ham sandwiches, crab salad, lemon tarts—also a packing problem.”
The tarts arrived intact, too. A second risk has proven itself not-so-risky, early in the story.
And, perhaps most memorably, there is the matter of the wine glasses.
“She had bought plastic champagne glasses for this occasion, but when Alex spotted her handling them he got the real ones—a wedding present—out of the china cabinet. She protested, but he insisted, and took charge of them himself, the wrapping and packing.”
Sally has thought ahead, evaluated the risk,and purchased accordingly.
But Alex has an idea in mind, and his idea of celebration does not include plastic glasses.
“The picnic was in honour of Alex’s publishing his first solo article in Zeitschrift für Geomorphology. They were going to Osler Bluff because it figured largely in the article, and because Sally and the children had never been there.”
The entire trip was motivated by Alex’s work and his corresponding achievement, professional and laudatory; even though the boys would have recognized it to be a holiday, the event is a life-marker of great significance for Alex.
And it would seem that Sally is an over-worrier, too concerned about everything from messy eggs to broken glass.
But the risks of the natural world remain, and they do not present themselves as one might expect.
“The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and unthreatening.”
Perhaps if the danger here had been woodland based, the story would have turned out differently. When one goes into the woods, one expects danger. But the risk of the deep-holes is something “other”.
“Deep chambers, really, some as big as a coffin, some much bigger that that, like rooms cut out of the rocks.”
At the outset they are linked with death (but time spirals in these stories, for obviously Sally is looking backwards, and given the outcome, she is unlikely to remember the chambers as big as a crib).
This risk is not averted. Kent falls through. And so begins a story about the pitfalls of parenting, which recalls the much-anthologized “Miles City, Montana”.
Guilt is not averted either. For as much as Alex’s domain is Zeitschrift für Geomorphology, Sally’s is the care of home and children.
She obediently accompanies and raises her glass, toasting Alex’s success, as an observer, but she does not claim to know anything about Alex’s work.
Whereas, in contrast, Alex is certain that he is better qualified to make decisions about packing for picnics and childcare than Sally is.
“He thought it was high time Savanna was transferred to the bottle—she was nearly six months old. And he thought Sally was far too casual about the whole procedure….”
His criticism stands on his judgement of everyday decisions (e.g. when Sally should begin weening) and, of course, in the wake of this near-tragic event.
And of course this is not to demonize Alex, who is like many husbands and fathers of that time and place (and, certainly, many today, as well).
Even in the course of this story, the doctor who treats young Kent, after his fall, expresses this opinion.
“’Kids have to be watched every minute in there,’ he said to Sally, who had gone in with Kent while Alex managed the other children. ‘Haven’t they got any warning signs up?'”
Sally needs to watch. She requires a warning sign in order to properly assess risk and danger.
“With Alex, she thought, he would have spoken differently. That’s the way boys are. Turn your back and they’re tearing around where they shouldn’t be. ‘Boys will be boys.'”
Alex is free to turn his back, allow the boys’ natures to play out, as they will, discount any element of risk.
There is no winning for Sally. She is either too lackadaisical or too over-protective.
“Sally clamps her mouth down on the automatic injunction to be careful. Alex looks at her and approves of the clamping down.”
Alex appears to approve of this decision, but it isn’t enough that Sally alter her own behaviour to Alex’s satisfaction; Sally is also responsible for altering the behaviour of the children to suit Alex as well.
“Kent got on his nerves, had done so even before the deep-hole drama happened. ‘Cut that out,’ he said, and complained privately to Sally.”
Then again, the story is told from Sally’s perspective and, given the outcome, she is clearly overwhelmed by responsibility and guilt. Perhaps part of this does rest at the feet of patriarchal expectations, but certainly some of it also must reside within.
Ironically, I did remember the second half of this story quite clearly, in which Sally meets Kent later in life, somewhere along Queen Street in Toronto, following the fire, which destroyed a stretch of buildings there some years ago.
But even when I began to re-read “Deep-Holes”, I did not remember that this story was the story in which this occurred.
I did not recall this to be the story in which a grown man who has survived a disaster deliberately adopts a lifestyle which affords him a peculiar proximity to risk and vulnerability.
Somehow, the idea of a family going on a picnic could not, even though I had read this story at least once before, simply could not end in this way.
And, how appropriate.
For how often are we surprised by the turns taken in life.
How often does one wince and marvel at the unexpected ways in which one event spirals into the next.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness 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, “Free Radicals”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.