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I have arrived in Ontario, where I might spend a few weeks. The first story for this stay in Ontario had to be by Alice Munro (born in 1931), Canada’s most notorious short story writer. Munro began writing short stories as many writers do: for practice, but she then realised that she liked the genre and decided that it would become our genre of predilection.
“Walker Brothers Cowboy” was published as part of her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968. It is a childhood story in which the first-person narrator recounts memories of her and her father when he was a peddler during depression.
The story opens with the narrator going for a walk by the lake with her father. There, her father tells her a story she is familiar with: how the lake came to be, which leads her to ponder on time and our short existence on the planet in the grand scheme of things:
“He tells me how Great Lakes came to be. All where Lake Huron is now, he says, used to be flat land, a wide flat plain. Then came the ice, creeping down from the North, pushing deep into the low places. . . . And then the ice went back, shrank back towards the North Pole where it came from, and left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gouged, and ice turned to lakes and there they were today. They were new, as time went. I try to see the plain before me, dinosaurs walking on it, but I am not able even to imagine the shore of the lake when the Indians were there, before Tuppertown. The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.”
This excerpt draws attention to one of the themes of the story: time passing and the past.
Then the story gives us some background on the family. The narrator explains how her father had to give up his fox farm because of the economic situation and become a peddler for the Walker Brothers, selling an eclectic range of products. The story contrasts her mother’s attitude to their new situation with that of her father, who used to bring her for walks by the lake and on his rounds as a Walker peddler.
It is during one of these afternoons going from door to door that he brings her and her brother to visit Nora Cronin and her blind and aging mother. We never really learn who Nora is, we just know that she grew up with the narrator’s father and has not seen him for a long time. The reunion of the two characters seem to make them equally happy and bring back stories and images of their youth. In her presence, the narrator discovers things she did not know about her father. However, the interlude has to end and the father must go back to his present life:
“On the way home my father does not buy any ice cream or pop, but does go into a country store and get a package of licorice, which he shares with us. She digs with the wrong foot, I think, and the words seem sad to me as never before, dark, perverse. My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know, just from the thoughtfulness, the pause when he passes the licorice, that there are things not to be mentioned. The whisky, maybe the dancing.”
This story is successful at evoking a time passed without burdening us with long descriptions. One can picture this rural Ontario of the depression Munro is alluding to. Munro leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination, but gives us enough details to reconstruct this place where she grew up and its atmosphere. I found this story profoundly touching and tender, especially because of the complicity between the narrator and her father. It is a simple story dealing with life and how people get on in difficult situations and try to make the best of what they have.
Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.