Readers of Dance of the Happy Shades will recognize Jubilee; some of its stories take place overtly in Jubilee too, and others might as well (but not “Sunday Afternoon”, “A Trip to the Coast” or “Dance of the Happy Shades”) although sometimes the small town setting is not identified.
Readers of Alice Munro’s first collection will also recognize that sense of being in-between. Between town and country, yes. But also between girlhood and womanhood.
And they’ll recognize Del Jordan from two of the early stories, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and “Images”. (And I have the idea that “Boys and Girls is about Del too, but I’m not certain of that yet.)
Every story in Lives of Girls and Women, however, features Del Jordan. Some readers think that makes the book a novel rather than a collection of stories. But Alice Munro is a short story writer.
(That must have been a marketing ploy, scribbling ‘novel’ across the cover of some editions, but I can’t sneer at it because I’ve had a lot of years resisting short stories myself: the then-story-resisting-reader in me might well have picked this up as a novel and overlooked it as a collection. And I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed out.)
Nonetheless, I like the idea of settling into Del Jordan’s world for more than a single story.
There, in Jubilee and on The Flats Road, we meet Mitch Plim and the Potter boys –bootleggers– and bachelor Sandy Stevenson who keeps a grey donkey, and we hear tell of Charlie Buckle’s store and Mrs. McQuade’s whorehouse, and there are doings with Irene Pollox and Frankie Hall, who are a little ‘touched’.
And speaking of ‘touched’, there’s Uncle Benny, who keeps e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g and Madeleine, what some might call a ‘real piece of work’.
(The heart of the story is right in there, and there’s a lot to say about the two of them, but I’ll leave that for anyone who might like to leave a comment with a spoiler alert: what a lot of questions this storyline raises!)
In “The Flats Road” we get reacquainted with Jubilee and Del, and Del gets acquainted with madness. This continues in “Heirs of the Living Body”, wherein Del interacts with Aunt Moira’s daughter, Mary Agnes (who “is not an idiot”), but in the second story, Del is primarily preoccupied by a death in the family.
Life in the Jordan home strikes me as both bizarre and ordinary. The propensity for practical jokes add some sparkle to the idea of traditional tales of town-life (or, near-town-life) — and I found myself grinning at the antics of Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace, although, ironically, Del notes that the “worst thing that could happen in this life was to have people laughing at you”.
But this was in stark contrast to the more sober and sombre realities of life there. I also found myself immediately and readily responding to Del’s feelings of inadequacy, her inherent feelings of “not measuring up”. (This is also, partly, why I think she might be the narrator in “Boys and Girls”, at least in spirit, but her feelings of falling short are also recalled in “Red Dress-1946, which was definitely not a Del story. Perhaps it’s shared by more girls than not.)
Del observes: “He [Uncle Craig] himself was not hurt or diminished in any way by my unsatisfactoriness, though he would point it out. This was the great difference between disappointing him and disappointing somebody like my mother…”
And, yet, if I recall correctly (from my first reading of this collection, about twenty years ago), Del comes to view her relationship with her mother somewhat differently, if not more positively. (Although I think she continues to struggle with the sense of disappointing other people who have varying expectations of her.)
Nonetheless, she becomes (I think) increasingly aware of the connections between the women in her family. Much as is hinted in her consideration of Uncle Craig’s research into family history: “It was not the individual names that were important, but the whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past.”
That which supports us and that which falls through: the first two stories in Lives of Girls and Women consider madness and loss, and the intersections between these states. It might not sound like gripping reading, but I am heartfully absorbed by it.
It’s not too late to join in, if you’ve yet to sample Munro’s stories, or if you’re curious about her earlier collections. Doncha want to?
Lives of Girls and Women stories:
The Flats Road; Heirs of the Living Body (above)
Princess Ida; Age of Faith MAR16
Changes and Ceremonies; Lives of Girls and Women MAR23
Baptizing; Epilogue: The Photographer MAR30