Back in 2005 or 2006, I read “Runaway” (a story) in The New Yorker, but, maybe I had been in China at that time, or maybe my English was not good enough to grasp the whole story, somehow I found it’s too lengthy to be impressive. But I remembered her name since then. In 2013, she won Nobel Prize. Big surprise! For she only writes short stories, who ever thought about that she would win? She’s dubbed Canada’s Chekhov, huge credit and honor. Anyway, I thought Munro might be worth reading. Last year, in Tianya Forum, a netizen compared Munro’s “The Time of Death” to “Death” of James Joyce; I couldn’t agree with it and I argued for that fiercely. Joyce’s a great writer and his Dubliner is a masterpiece in my mind. But you see, step by step, Munro's share in my mind is strengthened so much that I cannot ignore her. I decided to read her works seriously. And now, it almost took me a year to collect her works. I’m still looking for three books, Dance of the Happy Shades, Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You, and Open Secrets. Finally I picked up Alice Munro in July. It was a long journey and it will be a long journey.
Dance of the Happy Shades is her first collection of short stories and is the winner of the Governor General’s Award (1968) which is a big deal in Canada. This collection includes 15 stories which mostly take place in rural southern Ontario on depression era. In her book, I can read lots of familiar places, like Georgian Bay, Bratford, Windsor, London, and St. Joseph’s Hospital. I am an immigrant from outside of Canada, but after living in Ontario for ten years, I felt very hearty when I read them.
Among them, my favorites are “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, “Thanks for the Ride”, “The Time of Death”, “A Trip to the Coast”, and “The Peace of Utrecht”. Some readers would say they are never able to really identify with any of the characters or feel something for them. They felt a little bit remote and these stories are boring, but the stories are pretty much what I like, for they are about life, real life, I think, through words - that we readers breathe, feel and know at the bottom of us.
Hugh Garner in the forward to this book said: “The second-rate writers, the writers manques, the professional-commerical writers, find it impossible to write about ordinary people in ordinary situations, living ordinary lives… Hence their reliance on the grotesque, the far-out theme, the “different” or snob character, and the exotic or non-existent locale. The literary artist, on the other hand, uses people we all know, situations which are familiar to us and places we know or remember.”
That's true. You cannot find murder, sex, grotesque or exotic characters in her stories, just ordinary people’s ordinary life in ordinary situation, the struggle and pressure to live, the desire to speak up, and the longing to independence. Munro did an amazing job of telling stories of those fine and delicate feelings. Your heart will be touched after reading them.
In “Walker Brothers Cowboy” a father, a traveling salesman, took his daughter on a surprise tour of the countryside. They met a woman Nora whom the little girl slowly understood to be her father’s former sweetheart. They had a good talk about their old friends. We don’t know what happened between them and why they didn’t get married, but obviously Nora still loved the father. However, the father restrained himself and mastered of his passion, when Nora invited him to dance and stay for supper. He declined and said the kids’ mother would worry. What an excuse. Bitterly, Nora said: “I can drink alone but I can’t dance alone.” How sad was Nora. The excursion offered the girl a break from her routine of chores and acquainted her with a sense of possibility and danger previously unavailable to her.
I like the finishing touch of the story: “So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.”
“Thanks for the Ride” tells a bitter story. It’s about a girl’s dignity. Two boys felt bored when they were in a strange little town. They’d like to find two girls to hang around to kill time. So they met Lois, a girl who was just dumped by her boyfriend. Lois knew the boys had asked her out just for fun. Still, for her dignity, Lois purposely put on her best dress; she wanted the boy to meet her mother. Sadly, the mother was a snob. In the end, when George rudely asked the girls getting out of the car, Lois called aloud: “ ‘Thanks for the ride,’ the loud, crude, female voice, abusive and forlorn,” but with dignity.
"The Time of Death" is a sad sad story. A poor family loses their youngest child due to an unfortunate accident. The mother blamed the nine-year-old daughter, who was responsible for this accident. The girl's reaction was strange and weird. She's calm and quiet; she didn't cry after her young brother died, but actually she's really frightened and guilty especially her mother cursed her "don't let me see her, don't let her come near me!" In the end, the little girl could not bear it and bursted out. Now I’ve read two stories (Munro’s and Joyce’s). I still hold the opinion that “The Death” is much better than this story. The depth and width in Joyce’s “The Death” is not comparable. The snow reminds me that Maybe Munro dedicated the story to James Joyce, who knows?
"A Trip to The Coast" is full of smell of death, but I like it very much. The old grandmother, the little girl, and the hypnotist, are very vivid.
"The Peace of Utrecht" is none of business with Spanish Succession, but about some women’s life, the life and history of the mother, two daughters and their aunts. The story is kind of gothic and creepy. Munro weaves the reality together with the flashbacks from the past. Helen, a mother of two returned to hometown to visit her elder sister Maddy, who remained in their childhood house and continued to look after their long-ailing mother. Their “gothic” mom was deceased; she had left her daughters uncomfortable with each other and defensive about their life choices. In the end, “I couldn’t go on. I wanted my life.” Maddy said. “Oh hell, oh hell, oh Hel-len.”
Helen understood her sister. She merely said: “Take your life, Maddy, take it.”
But it’s unclear if Maddy will start her own life as she said to Helen, also asked herself: “Why can’t I, Helen? Why can’t I?”
I really enjoyed these stories with their acute observation, dark humor and brilliant evocation of time and place. The Dance of the Happy Shades is the first book of hers I’ve read, and showcases her early prowess at writing so well that I am looking forward to her next book Lives of Girls and Women.