When I was growing up in Toronto, our family owned a cottage. Almost every summer weekend we would pack up the car and drive two hours north. We’d speed past cows grazing in empty fields, lonely gas stations with signs unchanged since the 1950s, and small, dreary, towns. The towns inevitably had a general store, a lumber yard, the odd coffee shop, maybe a church, but that was about it. And I would wonder: What did one do in a place where there were no enticing store windows, no malls, no movie theaters, no skating rinks, no libraries, no city? How did people live in these places where the view from your window was of nothing but empty fields and a cold, limitless sky? Just the thought of it all sent a chill of horror through me, and I could only be grateful that no matter what seemed dissatisfactory about my own life, at least had the great good fortune not to live in one of those places. I think it was this sense of despair that inspired a deep appreciation, or rather, an awe, for the writing of Alice Munro, whose essential view of the world was shaped by the dimensions of those small towns.
Though I knew of Alice Munro when I still lived in Canada, it took me many years to read her work. As a girl growing up in the suburbs, the last thing I wanted to read about was the alarmingly similar predicament of other girls living in what we sophisticated city-folk referred to as “the boonies”. I was afraid that I would be bored to death, and that that boredom would feel uncomfortably close to home.
And so I read about people who lived in “interesting” places: Holden Caulfied’s adventures with the seamy side of life in NYC. Garp’s consorting with bears and prostitutes in Vienna. Garcia Marquez’s Buendía family in brilliant and doomed Macondo. Hanif Kureishi’s Karim negotiating his identity in South London. I could read about anything, it seems, except the lives of girls with whom I shared a language, a landscape, and a birthplace.
When, many years later, I did approach Alice Munro, it was with a skeptical curiosity about what she had done with her subject matter. Unlike Munro’s heroines, I had left Canada for the Middle East. It was no longer troubling for me to read about girls stuck in places where the monotony was broken only by bake sales and gossip. I found her very first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in my local library. And then, with my hard earned worldliness I re-entered the world I had so happily left behind. This is the setting of the very first story in the collection, her debut, as it were:
Then my father and I walk gradually down a long, shabby sort of street, with Silverwoods Ice Cream signs standing on the sidewalk outside tiny, lighted stores. This is Tuppertown, an old town on Lake Huron, an old grain port….Presently we leave these yards and houses behind, we pass a factory with boarded up windows, a lumberyard whose gates are locked for the night. Then the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards…
Are you asleep yet? Or just yawning through the gloom? What could possibly happen in this place that would interest a reader?
Here’s another description, from another story in the collection, The Peace of Utrecht. But be assured: the characters in this story are as close to Utrecht as I am to Teheran.
…the whole town, its rudimentary pattern of streets and its bare trees and muddy yards just free of the snow… dirt roads where the lights of cars appeared, jolting towards the town, under an immense pale wash of sky.
I know these streets, those bare trees and muddy yards, that immense sky. And every time I read an Alice Munro story, I wonder anew at how she is able to create something from what seems to me to be… nothing.
I’m not going to explore here how that Munro takes these settings, where life is quiet and local color is pale and muted, and turns them into a backdrop for stories that are compelling, powerful, and in their own unique way, full of tragedy, horror, moral dilemma, social critique, and drama; in other words, that span the infinite and ancient spectrum of human endeavor. But I would be happy to provide and example.
Take The Shining Houses, also from Dance of the Happy Shades. The plot is oh so simple. You’ve heard the story about the community that is eagerly awaiting the construction of new, modern apartments, and the only thing stopping the project is some crazy old lady who, though she’s been offered more than fair compensation, insists on remaining in her dilapidated old eyesore of a cabin/cottage/shack/house, thereby putting the entire plan on indefinite hold? What, you may ask, can possibly be done with this situation that is new, fresh, or surprising?
Well, how about this: Mary, a young wife and mother, and part of the community of energetic young couples perceives that she, out of the whole self-righteous lot of her peers, is the only one who can see crazy old Mrs. Fullerton’s dump of a house as something rich, layered, and complex.
Here was no open or straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final. The place had become fixed, impregnable, all its accumulations necessary, until it seemed that even the washtubs, mops, couch springs and stacks of old police magazines on the back porch were there to stay.
Mary senses the violence in the plan to force Mrs. Fullerton out of her house. The problem is that she can’t find the language to describe what she sees. The scene is played out at a child’s birthday party, where the parents have assembled for coffee and birthday cake.
Mary set her coffee cup down before she spoke and hoped her voice would sound all right, not emotional or scared. “But remember she’s been here a long time,” she said. “She was here before most of us were born.” She was trying desperately to think of other words, words more sound and reasonable than these; she could not expose to this positive tide any notion that they might think flimsy and romantic, or she would destroy her argument. But she had no argument. She could try all night and never find any words to stand up to their words, which came at her now invincibly from all sides: shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value.
Mary can’t find the words, and it wouldn’t make a difference if she could, because she’s up against something much more dark and primal than a neighborly disagreement.
And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behavior as property-owners as people who admire each other for being drunk.
In that brief lacuna between what the writer puts on the page and what the reader enacts in her mind, the shining houses and their smug, sanctimonious young owners have slipped over the line that differentiates a group from a mob.
Munro concludes the story with a final, compassionate glance at the town:
She saw the curtains being drawn across living room windows; cascades of flowers, of leaves, of geometrical designs, shut off these rooms from the night. Outside it was quite dark, the white houses were growing dim, the clouds breaking and breaking, and smoke blowing from Mrs. Fullerton’s chimney. The pattern of Garden Place, so assertive in the daytime, seemed to shrink at night into the raw black mountainside.
And that’s the thing about Alice Munro. We’re still in some dull town in Ontario, still with characters who seem limited in scope and experience. So why does this story, like much of Munro’s work seem to partake of the finest, the most subtle truth and beauty?