In playing the game, a girl writes the name of a boy beside her own name, crosses out the letters in common and counts off the various states of being: “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”.

Alice Munro Hateship SmallThis is what matters: her relationship with a man.

And, reading it that way, it seems to be a progression, but if there are fewer than five letters, the momentum is arrested, and if there are more than five letters, the words become a chant, and Marriage nestles next to Hateship in the round.

When the story opens, the only relationship Johanna Parry appears to have with a man is with the station master, who is responding to her request to have some furniture shipped from Ontario to Saskatchewan.

The station master is playing games of his own, flirting and cajoling, instructing and patronizing, checking for rings and assessing marriageability, calculating the role this unknown woman must inhabit in the town’s social hierarchy.

There are rules to this game, too, but Johanna Parry is not a contender in the station master’s eyes.

Had she referenced her connection to Mr. McCauley, her employer, one of the town’s “upright-walking fine old men in three-piece suits”, the station master “might have taken more of an interest, and things might have turned out differently”.

But although the station master is unaware, the way in which Johanna views her own status is shifting, transforming.

“She went at the wood with soft dustrags, then lemon oil, and when she was finished it shone like candy. Maple candy—it was bird’s-eye maple wood. It looked glamorous to her, like satin bedspreads and blond hair. Glamorous and modern, a total contrast to all the dark wood and irksome carving of the furniture she cared for in the house.”

Train schedules are immovable, class structures are rigid, but inward perceptions and expectations are fluid, and just because a woman has always worn ankle socks does not mean she will never wear a pair of stockings.

Johanna has always shopped at Callaghans Mens Ladies and Childrens Wear, when she needed something. She inherited clothes from her previous employer Mrs. Willets, and she never had to buy for Sabitha, the girl she looked after in Mr. McCauley’s house.

But after she makes arrangements for the furniture delivery, she goes into Milady’s, where the sign reads “Simple Elegance, the Mode for Fall”.

Here, readers are treated to the proprietor’s eye for detail on fashion. But throughout, readers are treated to Alice Munro’s flawless eye for detail.

The specific observations that the station master has made of Johanna are no different; in fact, even they are rooted in fabric and texture to some extent. But they revealed to readers with a subtle masterful touch. This storyteller need not talk of velvet eyes, need not show off her craft directly.

“It feels as light as silk, but it wears like iron. You can see it’s lined throughout, lovely silk-and-rayon lining. You won’t find it bagging in the seat and going out of shape the way the cheap suits do. Look at the velvet cuffs and collar and the little velvet buttons on the sleeve.”

Johanna wants to try on the suit, but she leaves with quite another dress. The proprietor has sized her up (literally and metaphorically) and created a space for the new Johanna to inhabit.

And, in the process, readers learn that Johanna has a new status which she has not spoken about with anybody else yet.

“But you found somebody. You won’t be on your own anymore and isn’t that lovely?” the proprietor exclaims.

For Johanna Parry’s name is to be written alongside Ken Boudreau’s. That’s Kenneth Boudreau, of course. And if you play the game, it ends in Marriage.

This bears some similiarity to the marriage planned from a distance in “Pictures of the Ice”, but in that story, the man goes shopping for new pants and tells everybody about the pending union. Though he, too, observes a harsh and unforgiving landscape on the precipice of great change.

When Johanna leaves Ontario for Saskatchewan, the heat is relentless, the surroundings bleak:

“She looked with longing to the shade of the town ahead, but when she got there she found that the trees were either spruce, which were too tight and narrow to give much shade, or raggedy thin-leaved cottonwoods, which blew about and let the sun through anyway.”

Just as the environment feels oppressive, the story considers states of decay and stagnancy, questions whether it’s possible to be released from an oppressive and dis-eased state.

Mr. McCauley wonders about this too, back in Ontario, seeing “in the fog the looming buildings of the old Exhibition Grounds—homely, spacious buildings, like enormous barns. They had stood for years and years unused—all through the war—and he forgot what happened to them in the end. Were they torn down, or did they fall down?”

And of course the story begins with Johanna’s pursuit of another kind of life, her reach for the possibility of something “more”, for a “real life”.

Mr. McCauley’s granddaughter, Sabitha, seems poised to discover a different kind of release, in her burgeoning sexuality. But her friend Edith recalls her mother’s warnings about the wrong kinds of abandon, the legislated sorts of release and rejuvenation.

     “Years ago, before she knew what she was doing, she had gone to sleep with the blanket between her legs and her mother had discovered her and told her about a girl she had known who did things like that all the time and had eventually been operated on for the problem.
     ‘They used to throw cold water on her, but it didn’t cure her,’ her mother had said. ‘So she had to be cut.’
Otherwise her organs would get congested and she might die.”

And the risk attached to sexual expression and exploration is clear fromreferences made to Sabitha’s mother’s history. Johanna’s situation stands in stark contrast. (Or, does it?)

The consideration of young women’s sexuality brings readers of Munro’s stories back to the experiences of Del and Rose in The Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?; “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” feels connected to many of the author’s earlier stories. It seems like the title could have applied to other entire collections.

Sabitha and Edith’s friendship recalls “Jesse and Meribeth”; Sabitha and Johanna’s relationship recalls “Vandals”; the relationship between Ken and Sabitha’s mother, Marcella, is not discussed, just as the mother in “Before the Change” is completely overlooked; the ways in which truth can be concealed/fabricated in letters brings “Carried Away”, “The Jack Randa Hotel” and “A Wilderness Station” to mind. 

This story is extraordinarily complex — one can imagine entire stories written about several of the relationships therein — and there is a vein of darkness, in the young girls’ motivations and in what Johanna discovers and uncovers in Saskatchewan.

Alice Munro might like to play games, but her stories are works of art.

Which parts of this story stand out for you? What questions still niggle? If you could ask for a companion tale, whose story would you like to know more about?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Floating Bridge”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.