When Hazel Curtis travels to Scotland, she tells people that it was a trip that she and Jack had always planned to take together.

1990; Penguin, 1991

1990; Penguin, 1991

And now that she’s a widow, Jack cannot contradict Hazel, speak out to say that he never wanted to take that trip.

For now that she’s a widow, Hazel has her own reasons for taking the trip. (She is piecing things together à la “Meneseteung”, but with a lifetime of memories instead of a single text to interpret.)

Hazel (nee Joudry) Curtis, is a widow in her 50s, a high school biology teacher in Walley Ontario.

“She was a person you would not be surprised to find sitting by herself in a corner of the world where she didn’t belong, writing things in a notebook to prevent the rise of panic.”

That corner of the world is the Royal Hotel, which her husband Jack used to visit, when he was a navy man. He had a middle-aged cousin named Margaret Dobie who lived nearby, and Jack would go to the hotel for a drink.

To hear Jack tell it, there was a romance with the daughter of the man who owned the hotel – Antoinette – as well. (Though Hazel finds that story is told differently, when viewed from another perspective.)

When she travels there herself, Hazel does meet Antoinette, who seems to be the opposite of Hazel in many ways. She is also, surprisingly, the opposite of what Hazel expected her to be. (And no, those opposites do not cancel each other out: Antoinette is a complex character.)

Of course, years have passed. Years since Jack was spending time at the Royal Hotel. Years since he was not spending time there, when he was married to Hazel and working at the appliance store.

“She was shy and prudish and intelligent. Jack triumphed easily over the shyness and the prudery, and he was not as irritated as most men were, then, by the intelligence. He took it as a kind of joke.”

Jack is described in some detail, but he also quietly stands in contrast with the solicitor that Hazel meets in the hotel, Dudley Brown.

At first, Hazel believes Dudley is part of the hotel staff, but she immediately realizes that he is not a fit for Antoinette’s establishment. (She later must revise her evaluation somewhat, but that is related to plot points best left unspoiled.)

When Hazel first meets him and figures that Dudley is either a bachelor or a widower, she weighs on the side of bachelor because of his twinkly-ness. “That twinkly, edgy air of satisfaction didn’t usually survive married life.” (Readers can’t help but summon up the un-twinkly, un-edgy Jack, selling microwave ovens in Walley, Ontario.)

Everything in Scotland is fascinating and Hazel is intent upon deciphering what she finds there. “She must have thought that she was invisible, the way she slowed down and peered.”

Even casual references contain glimpse into history with which she is unfamiliar. In her travel diary, a notation for ‘Philiphaugh’ is fleshed out with further knowledge later. (The violence surrounding this detail echoes the unexpected discovery of the history of the Cameronians, which rounds out the first story in this collection, “Friend of My Youth”.)

Often the site of violence appears unremarkable later, whether a public square or a pub mentioned in an old ballad. “But the pub now seemed ordinary….”

What is recorded, what is remembered, is not necessarily reflected in the present-day scene. And yet, sometimes what is recorded (like an old ballad recited by the now-much-aged Maggie Dobie) can reveal unexpected truths about the present-day.

“A ton of words Miss Dobie had, to bury anything.” But Hazel can burrow beneath the surface of those words and find something meaningful underneath.

Sometimes lines can be drawn, connections made between people who appeared distanced, alliances where connections appeared to be severed, intertwined states that exist somewhere between connectedness and disconnectedness: Hazel can decipher some of this, even when others might prefer it remain unrecognized.

But one question remains: “The whole worrying, striving, complicated bundle of Hazel – was that something that could just be picked up and made happy?”

This is true for other heroines in Munro’s stories too (like “Circle of Prayer” in The Progress of Love): “She stood outside her own happiness in a tide of sadness. And the opposite thing happened the morning [he] left. Then she stood outside her own unhappiness in a tide of what seemed unreasonably like love.”

Whether in Walley or Scotland, Hazel is standing outside of her own happiness, examining its relationship to the love she has known in her life.

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 I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the fourth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.