What a complicated tale. Though perhaps less so than “Open Secrets” and “The Albanian Virgin”, for readers have a much broader sense of understanding what “really happened”.
The possibility of honest understanding, in this case, settles in the last letter that Annie wrote to Sadie.
[NOTE: There are some spoilers below, but quotes are selected randomly to minimize the impact on readers’ experiences of unravelling what actually happens in this story.]
She wrote the letter from the Walley Gaol, and in it she outlines her perspective on the tragic events which led to her being at the gaol to begin with.
But, first, we have the version shared by the Clerk of the Peace, in a letter written in 1852 to the Reverend McBain in Carstairs, regarding new inmate Annie Herron.
“As you may know, we have a very fine new Gaol here where the inmates are kept warm and dry and are decently fed and treated with all humanity, and there has been a complaint that some are not sorry – and at this time of year, even happy – to get into it.”
He continues by saying that “all accords pretty well with what you have told me” about Annie Herron but that “[e]vents in her account begin to differ only with her husband’s death”.
The Walley Gaol calls to mind the historic Goderich jail. Touring the gaol is a fascinating experience; it’s easy to imagine Annie in a cell in the women’s wing.
The contrast between the Governor’s House (attached to the gaol on the south-east side of the octagonal structure), the luxury of these family accommodations with the austere conditions for inmates literally around the corner, is a stark representation of the kind of class issues that Alice Munro often illuminates in her fiction.
In “A Wilderness Station”, however, Annie has left a precarious life in the woods behind, travelling to Walley to confess to the murder of her husband.
She had not been living in the bush long. Her husband had written to the orphanage in Toronto, seeking an industrious wife, and she had aided the brothers in clearing land near Clinton, until her husband’s death.
The reverend’s version of these events – in accord with the surviving brother – has Annie’s husband being killed by a falling branch, while the brothers were out clearing the bush.
Annie disputes this version. In her version, her husband was angry and a rock she threw at him killed him. “The brother said that they should not reveal the truth as she had not intended murder, and she agreed.”
What compelled Annie Herron to walk all the way to Walley to declare her guilt? This question troubled the clerk, and he writes again to the reverend about the latest developments.
“Her brother-in-law has written me a very decent letter affirming that there is no truth to her story, so I am satisfied on that.”
Besides, there is the evidence of the doctor, who has also examined Annie and raised the question that what she has been reading might have compromised her sanity.
(Forgive the long quote: as someone “guilty” of complete surrender, as described below, I find the diagnosis fascinating.)
For all this he – the doctor – lays the blame on the sort of reading that is available to these females, whether it is of ghosts or demons or of love escapades with Lords and Dukes and suchlike. For many, these tales are a passing taste given up when life’s real duties intervene. For others they are indulged in now and then, as if they were sweets or sherry wine, but for some there is complete surrender and living within them just as in an opium-dream. He could not get an account of her reading from the young woman, but he believes she may by now have forgotten what she has read, or conceals the matter out of slyness.
The discussion between the clerk and the reverend does not yield any positive conclusions for the reader. What the clerk views as evidence of certainty, the reader doubts. And, in turn, the reverend brings no new concerns to the clerk.
What does raise another set of questions for the reader are the letters that Annie writes to Sadie, the other young woman recommended as good marriage material, when Annie was chosen.
There is no record of any reply from Sadie, but Annie fully outlines the crime in her letter. Not in her first letter to Sadie, no, but she does, eventually, describe every detail. Based on this long descriptive letter, the reader may be certain, at last, that Annie killed her husband.
The reader has yet another advantage in the quest to unravel the truth of this death, the inclusion of the memories of Miss Christina Mellon, recorded by an historian in 1959.
Her grandfather was the clerk at the gaol who assigned Annie a cell, but Christina’s reminiscences are rooted in her connection with Treece Herron, the living brother’s father-in-law, whose political activities made him a figure of interest.
In 1907, Christina was driving a Stanley Steamer, and she recalls it with great fondness.
“I am going on at great length filling in the background but you did say you were interested in details of the period. I am like most people my age and forget to buy milk but could tell you the color of the coat I had when I was eight.”
Christina does not offer any specifics which cinch the reader’s understanding of these events, but she does describe a later-in-life meeting between the surviving brother and Annie. The reader has the opportunity to try out both versions of the events, watching this older Annie (she had been only 18 when she went into the bush to marry) and older George Herron reconnect.
When Christina is driving, the two women cross the bridge at Saltford, the scene of many accidents, where the old iron bridge turns sharply both ways. Annie marvels at the bridge, for once you had to pay to be rowed across the water just there.
How much has changed, Annie observes. How likely things can take a hard right as they can take a hard left. How difficult it is to deduce the truth, when there is more than one credible version of events.
For there is a catch with the letters to Sadie that Annie sent from the gaol. Her first letter was returned. The clerk was aware of this, but Annie was not informed, in hopes that Annie would try again to write to Sadie and reveal more information.
Annie may not have been formally told of Annie’s letter being returned, marked “Unknown”, but she did suspect that not only were the letters being intercepted on their way out of the gaol, but that Annie was not receiving them either. She announces her suspicions.
And, yet, Annie wrote out that whole story. Knowing that Sadie would not receive it. Annie’s letter had quite another recipient in mind. She told the ‘truth’ accordingly. Which, at last, leaves the reader with the knowledge that what was taken as knowledge contained nothing of certainty.
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 this is the sixth story in Open Secrets. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.