By Alice Munro
Read April 2020
Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. The prize motivation was “master of the contemporary short story”. This reader thoroughly agrees with this Nobel Prize website (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2013/munro/facts/) quote about Munro: “These [stories]often accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages.” It is quite astonishing that in 20-30 pages we can gain deep understanding of the narrator or protangonist and pertinent characters—past and present—and the conflict(s) they are confronting in this story. The timeline of the story often shifts numerous times, but seamlessly and naturally. Her skill in using this structure, in part, allows for so much of the pertinent past to inform the reader regarding the present situation. Often a pivotal moment or event is included in an amazingly delicate way.
The story Train provides beautiful examples of these skills. A soldier is returning to his hometown after the war via train. However, he jumps off the train before it reaches the station for some undisclosed reason. He encounters a woman with a cow in a run-down house and small farm and somehow ends up first doing a few chores for a meal which eventually turns into living there for a number of years while he fixes up the place and does odd jobs in town as well. The woman develops a medical problem, which the reader eventually assumes is breast cancer; the protagonist drives her to Toronto for treatment. After the woman, while in her hospital bed, reveals both a disturbing secret from her past and that she plans to bequeath him the farm in her will, he goes for a walk. On this walk he wanders into doing a favor for a man which results in our protagonist eventually becoming a super for the hotel/apartment building owned by the man. One day a woman comes in looking for her daughter. The protagonist never meets or even sees her but knows who it is by her voice. The author concisely provides the backstory of their past as well as a discrete phrase that may explain why he chooses to leave this job, get on a train, and get off in a new town to find work.
Astonishing is the word this reader kept saying while reading this collection of ten short stories and a set of three stories the author indicates are definitely autobiographical. These autobiographical stories provide wonderfully described glimpses of major maturation points in the author’s life.
In Eye, we learn that the narrator (the author) had her mother to herself for a number of years but a little brother and little sister suddenly arrive in quick succession. “It was with my brother’s coming, though, and the endless carryings-on about how he was some sort of present for me, that I began to accept how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.” In this story as well the narrator is taken to see the body of her nanny who was hit and killed by a car while she was walking. “Yet for a long time when I did think of her, I never questioned what I believed had been shown to me. Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had it in my mind that such a thing [the corpse winking at her] had happened. I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real it spite of that. Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.” The story Night describes a poignant moment between daughter and father in which he gives her straightforward but actionable advice “People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.” This allows the narrator to deal with a troubling thought and move on. When the narrator is describing this scene to us now she is able to see into the character of the man who was her father more deeply than she could understand when the scene happened. She can now imagine what he might have been confronting that morning in their lives which would become progressively more difficult. Then the author snaps us back: “Never mind. From then on I could sleep.”
This reader now faces losing the library e-book copy for the second time as the check-out period expires, but this reader is not quite ready to lose this book. A purchase is likely about to occur, as well as further exploration of this author.