Monday, May 20, 2024

RIP Alice Munro, whose stories perhaps got better as she got older

Western Ontario may not have been the best place to grow up for a kid, but for Alice Munro, it provided a fertile ground of small-town characters to spread throughout her lifetime of writing. She is renowned as a master of the short story, compared often to William Faulkner and Anton Chekhov, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. Somehow I had never read any of her work, but when she passed away on May 13, it spurred me to delve into some of the stories regarded as her finest.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” from the collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968): The young girl narrator describes a walk with her father through her small town anmed Tuppertown on Lake Huron. Then later, the mother isn’t feeling so well so the dad, daughter narrator, and younger brother go for a car ride and, oddly, stop at a woman’s house where there is whiskey and dancing - two things that definitely don’t happen at their own family’s home.

There really is not much that happens in this story, although Munro artfully describes what typical life must have been like for people in Depression Era-ravaged households where better times were still a memory and current times were very rough going. 3 out of 5 stars

“Age of Faith,” from the collection Lives of Girls and Women (1971): A 12-year-old girl with the family name of Jordan attends various churches in her rural community in order to get an understanding of whether God is real. She gets no help trying to understand from her younger brother, who has absolutely no need for religion. She gets no help from her mother, who yells at her that man created God, not the other way around. By the end, after their dad is looking for their dog because it has killed a sheep and the dad is now going to kill the dog, the previously ambivalent younger brother is attempting to pray to keep him from doing it. Meanwhile the protagonist girl still has lots of questions about God’s existence and how difficult it is to watch her brother show this display of faith.

Munro’s writing is all over the place, and despite an excellent concept or idea for a short story, I think she only half pulls it off. The story is profound, but it’s also not that interesting. 2.5 out of 5 stars

“How I Met My Husband,” from the collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974): A plane lands in the field across from the wealthy Peebles property, where the not-wealthy 15-year-old protagonist named Edie works, having dropped out of school because of bad grades and disinterest. She imagines that it must be harder for the rich people to picture what the poor people’s houses and lives were like than the other way around. The pilot has been camping out in the field and comes over for water then catches her wearing one of Ms. Peebles’ dresses, but the two spark a bit of a friendship or at least curiosity of each other. Then Alice, the fiancĂ©e of the pilot Chris arrives. But she leaves with Ms. Pebbles for a picnic and Edie takes a cake to Chris. They get intimate in his tent and he says he’s leaving and will write her a letter. Alice finds out and is furious but Edie is allowed to stay on working for Ms. Peebles. She waits for the letter for a long time, but it never comes. In the meantime, she builds up a relationship with the postman and they eventually get married. 

Now this is more like it. A great and entertaining story and a deep dive into the loneliness and sexual awakening many - all? - women face. 5 out of 5 stars

“Dimensions,” from the collection Too Much Happiness (2009): Doree is 23 and riding a bus to visit her husband in a home for the criminally insane. Then shifting back to when she was 16, her mother dies in the hospital from a botched operation and Doree moves in with a hospital orderly she has started a relationship with named Lloyd. They move across the country, get married, and have three kids named Sasha, Barbara Ann, and Dimitri. Doree and Lloyd homeschool the kids but increasingly he gets mad at her. One night she buys a dented can of pasta and he accuses her of wanting to poison him and the kids. She leaves and spends the night at the house of an another homeschooling mom. She comes back the next morning and he has murdered all three children because “how could they suffer the shame of knowing their mom had walked out on them?” She works at a job cleaning a motel and sometimes goes to visit Lloyd, who assures her the kids are happy and doing well. She continues to not find meaning in her life.

I found this one to be the most page-turning of these four Munro stories, but the ending is strange and a little unfulfilling. Doree was on her way to see Lloyd again when she witnesses a young man fly out of his pickup truck. Doree breathes life back into the man but it’s unclear if this is a sign to give up on Lloyd or continue to include him in her life. Perhaps Lloyd provides the only happy memory she can imagine about her kids. 4.5 out of 5 stars

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