“Do you think I ought to start to neck this summer?… I heard that’s why Scotty didn’t ask me at Easter.”
A 14-year-old girl asks that of the young household maid as they make preparations for the annual summer vacation. The maid offers an emphatic "yes!." But we are told that her reply was also delivered “almost vindictively.”
Welcome to the world of Alice Munro, where almost nothing is ever uncomplicated. Would it be too much to ask that the teenager and maid have some unalloyed girl fun, chatting about how far to go? Yes, for Munro, it certainly would be asking too much. In Sunday Afternoon, the maid is not getting any and is tired of being at the beck and call of the employers. She takes secret delight in exposing her charge to the heartaches of adolescent dating. At the very least, her prim employer’s child is going to get a little slutty while on vacation — and what’s not to like about that?
All I needed to know about the fairer sex, I learned over the years, through these stories and others from Alice Munro. The spinster who puts off a traveling salesman (she prefers the hotel soup to conversation), the faithful spouse who regularly visits her husband at the St. Thomas Institution (he poisoned and killed their three children), and now this girl wondering how much of her flesh to dole out and at what intervals along the rocks of her family’s Georgian Bay island.
If winning this contest means selling you, the reader, on dynamism of this book’s plot, I lose. The problem for the reviewer is that Munro has devoted her writing to the interior life of women. She launched her career with this first set of short stories, published in 1968. Having picked a time and location and theme for her perch upon the world, she never much moved past any of them. We are the richer for her vow of stability but, like I said, there is not much of a plot.
Think Wingham, 1953, which is where she grew up and which frames almost all of her writing. Which is to say that we may as well be in Dundalk, 1954. Or Markdale, 1955. That’s pretty much it — that’s the decade and that’s the sparse square miles of her geography — a sliver of time and a sliver of space.
Nor is this minimalism offset by much in the way of action. In truth, nothing much really happens in these stories. In the main, her characters continue to live out in reaction to an event that happened years earlier: a husband who walked down the lane one day and just never returned; a traveling salesman who, child in hand, visits a woman with whom he once had a fling.
If anything kinetic does occur in real time, it is thwarted, muted, deflected and pretty much deflated by the end of the tale.
Yet it is in such miniatures, set in a kind of 1950’s amber, that Munro repeatedly manages to pull off her magic. In that, lies her laureate brilliance. If your canvass is revolutionary Russia or Hitler’s Berlin or the embryonic American west, the raw material at your fingertips is rather overwhelming. You would have to be an unimaginative dullard not to sculpt out of such dense loadstone some fiction of at least moderate interest.
But if the ingredients are limited to a town of 2,000, a prim Methodist Sunday school teacher and an afternoon at the local quarry, you admire the cook for her sheer inventiveness. As with the prescribed three ingredient cocktail, limitations can sometimes feed inspiration.
Let me return to that maid. Towards the end of Sunday Afternoon, she is cornered by a young cousin of her employers. He “took hold of her lightly, as in a familiar game, and spent some time kissing her mouth.” In the hands of almost any other author, this passage would droop into melodrama. But a woman’s thoughts, a woman’s interior landscape is complex and conflicted: “The stranger’s touch had eased her; her body was simply grateful and expectant, and she felt a lightness and a confidence she had not known in this house.” So terrific then, we think — the girl is about to have a lovely fling on a remote island. But oh no, nothing is that uncomplicated: For the maid, there remained something to explore yet — “a tender spot, a new and still mysterious humiliation.”
No Munro character ever emerges triumphant, unscathed. Per Springsteen, "in the end what you don’t surrender, well, the world just strips away."
Many of these stories tense up over either class or sex, and often both.
Says a department store clerk of her manager, “I’ve been there fourteen years and Hawes does not pick on me, knowing I wouldn’t take it if he did.”
Elsewhere, in An Ounce of Cure, a girlfriend is called in to help a drunken friend who is half passed out while babysitting – her friend’s energy was the “overflow of a great female instinct to manage, comfort and control.”
As for how one girl’s family stood relative to the MacQuarries, “Momma lectured that we’re just as good as them.”
These are hard women. They are hammered by the small humiliations, exposures and gossip that comes with living on the wrong side of the tracks or down a concession road, just past the gravel pit. And usually they manage to rise above it.
Feminism was barely a ripple in small town Ontario during the 50’s. But Munro’s feisty and lusty and female characters are the raw material which would later allow Friedman and Fonda a footing. In Alice Munro, you get a real sense of a wave which is about to crest and roll over us all.
My mother recalls that the pews in her rural Dutch church were reserved for the wealthy farmers while she made due with the back of the sanctuary. More than one of those farmers preyed on their female fieldworkers. As a 15-year-old immigrant, mom cleaned the large Brady House in Strathroy; there, she had a window into the lives of Canadians with money and a semblance of class.
Those tiny humiliations stay with you, 65 years later, as many a woman can attest. In this collection and Munro's others, familiar characters and places echo down the corridors of time. Read these stories, I implore you! Read them and recognize your aunt, your mother,... hell, that girl you made out with!
Five local celebrities will advocate for five locally-authored books in Grey County Reads, a county-wide reading program involving seven Grey County libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey.
Each celebrity will advocate for one Canadian book over five published installments, covering plot, character and theme analyses as well as introductory and summary arguments.
Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest, consider each book and it’s celebrity endorsement. Pick up your own copy of one or more of these books and give us your opinion too. Books are available in limited quantities from your local public library or may be purchased from your favourite local bookstore.
Celebrity installments will be posted to SouthGrey.ca weekly through to February, 2020. Read any or all of the Grey County Reads books and/or read each of the book synopses and celebrity installments to play along. Then vote for your favourite book and community library. Voting begins in February.
After the start of voting, one book will be eliminated weekly until only one book remains. At the end of the contest, three people will be chosen at random, from amongst all who have voted, to win a total of $100 worth of gift certificates from Speaking Volumes Books and Audio. Also, based on votes counted, one community library will win $200 worth of books for their community!
Previous book winners:
2019: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, advocated by Steven Morel.
2018: Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, advocated by Sharon Sinclair.
Grey County Reads is supported through advertising by these local businesses:
The Bicycle Café
Chapman's Ice Cream
The Colour Jar
ColourPix Graphic Design Services
Grey County Public Libraries
Grey Roots Museum and Archives
John Tamming Law
Alex Ruff, MP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
Nature's Path Osteopathy and Alternative Healing
Owen Sound Transportation Company
The Restaurant - Leela's Villa Inn
Speaking Volumes Books and Audio
Bill Walker, MPP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
West Grey Chamber of Commerce