The turkeys, Steve Gauley, a young girl: drownings.
Re-reading “Miles City, Montana” reveals the intricate layering of Alice Munro’s stories, the multiple threats of drowning and its actual occurrence.
One. Then the next. They settle.
Subtly, so that it really seems to be about the turkeys (recalling “The Turkey Season”, but although there are similarites, the farms have different owners) and the other details.
Yet, the story begins with memory. “My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned.”
The narrator can describe the boy in detail, “like a heap of refuse that had been left out all winter”. But she states in only the third paragraph: “I don’t think I really saw all this.”
That is what happens with memory: it is unreliable but it presses onward.
What does this mean, for a story which is assembled from memories?
The narrator discusses what she might have been allowed to get close enough to see, what she must have heard somebody saying when they were referring to what she had not seen herself, and what it would and would not have been like, had she actually seen the child’s face. She is not discussing facts, but maybes.
What we assemble as memory: it is imagination with deliberate, rational construction imposed as a foundation, with emotional impact colouring the re-creation throughout.
In essence, memory is fiction. And, yet — and, so — “Miles City, Montana” is rooted in memory.
The story is positioned in time so that the narrator is not only recalling this drowning from her childhood, but she is recalling another event from her years as a young wife and mother of two girls, looking back at both events from later in time still, from a point at which she has been long divorced from her husband, the girls’ father.
Even if memory is fiction, it is of paramount importance: memory stacked upon memory.
First, reaching back to the furthest event she recounts, it “seemed a worse shame (to hear people talk) that there was no mother, no woman at all – no grandmother or aunt, or even a sister – to receive Steve Gauley and give him his due of grief.”
But there is something else, something she remembers later, an intense disgust and anger that she remembers feeling towards adults, beginning at that time.
“It could not be understood or expressed, though it died down after a while into a heaviness, then just a taste, an occasional taste – a thin, familiar misgiving.”
In both of these instances, there are parallels in later situations which beg the readers to consider a string of questions: is a death in which a mother grieves less shameful? in what ways (if any) can a father legitimately grieve the loss of a child? is the parent-child relationship inherently characterized by anger?
But the reader cannot forget that the narrator has just stated that she does not trust her own memory, so all of these ideas and emotions surrounding these situations are unreliable as well.
It seems likely that this anger and disgust is something that she has imprinted upon this early memory, something she has imagined and re-visioned, just as she created the sight of the boy’s body after he had drowned.
Steve Gauley’s father “was the only grownup that I let off the hook. He was the only one I didn’t see giving consent. He couldn’t prevent anything, but he wasn’t implicated in anything, either — not like the others, saying the Lord’s Prayer in their unnaturally weighted voices, oozing religion and dishonor.”
No other grownup, not even the narrator, has been let off the proverbial hook.
Certainly not her husband, Andrew, who is no longer her husband when the narrator tells this story. Not in an everyday way — they argued about everything from lettuce on sandwiches to weightier issues of responsibility — and not in a lasting way either.
“And finally – finally – racked and purged, we clasped hands and laughed, laughed at those two benighted people, ourselves. Their grudges, their grievances, their self-justification. We leap-frogged over them. We declared them liars.”
What does this say of the progress of love? It immediately recalls the grudges from the title story and the knowledge that this marriage will end in divorce some years later directly challenges the idea of progress. “Andrew and I didn’t forget things. We took umbrage.”
In my memory of this story, it was about one specific drowning, but my memory was wrong; the plot does not unfold as I remembered it unfolding, and I must question my reader’s memory, just as the narrator questions her own memories.
“Miles City, Montana” is not so much a story about drowning. One could argue that it is about memory. One could argue that it is about marriage. One could argue that it is about survival. One could argue that it is about whatever you imagine it to be about.
“There’s something trashy about this kind of imagining, isn’t there? Something shameful. Laying your finger on the wire to get the safe shock, feeling a bit of what it’s like, then pulling back.”
Munro puts the reader’s finger on the wire in every single story, does she 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. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the fourth in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “Fits”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.