The thing about short stories is you never know quite what you're getting. Like a box of chocolates that has no description of the contents, you just have to try your luck. It always takes a few paragraphs, sometimes even a few pages to orient myself and figure out what's happening and why. Sometimes the why takes longer and a little effort, but with Alice Munro, it's always worth it. How's this for an opening for her story "Miles City, Montana" in The Progress of Love:
"My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned. There were several men together, returning from the search, but he was the one carrying the body. The men were muddy and exhausted, and walked with their heads down, as if they were ashamed. Even the dogs were dispirited, dripping from the cold river. When they all set out, hours before, the dogs were nervy and yelping, the men tense and determined, and there was a constrained, unspeakable excitement about the whole scene. It was understood that they might find something horrible."
Don't you want to keep reading? I did. Who's the boy? What happened to him? And who is telling the story? Initially you don't know who the narrator is--a child perhaps? Boy or girl? I thought a boy, but over the course of a few pages the reader learns the story is narrated by a woman telling the story from the vantage point of adulthood. Munro seems to like this layered sort of storytelling. The action takes place over the course of time, often moving around in time, but usually it's a matter of someone looking back at events that shaped their life or an event in the past that throws light on some other big event in their more recent history. (Possible spoilers coming).
The latter is the case here. This death of a small boy opens the story. The drowned boy has no mother or even any other woman in his life "to receive Steve Gauley and give him his due of grief". Only a father who is a hired man, a drinker but not a drunk.
"His fatherhood seemed accidental, and the fact that the child had been left with him when the mother went away, and that they continued living together, seemed accidental."
But for all his faults, the narrator doesn't hold him in contempt, unlike the other adults attending the funeral.
"I felt a furious and sickening disgust. Children sometimes have an access of disgust concerning adults. The size, the lumpy shapes, the bloated power. The breath, the coarseness, the hairiness, the horrid secretions. But this was more. And the accompanying anger had nothing sharp and self-respecting about it."
Flash forward twenty years or so and the reader finally discovers that the narrator is a woman, now a mother herself. She and her husband are traveling cross country from Vancouver by way of the US to Ontario to visit their parents.
"What we are doing this for, I thought, and the answer came--to show off. To give Andrew's mother and my father the pleasure of seeing their grandchildren. That was our duty. But beyond that we wanted to show them something. What strenuous children we were, Andrew and I, what relentless seekers of approbation."
It's summer, and it's hot. Their daughters sit in the backseat watching the cities and states go by. They want a beach, somewhere cool or somewhere to cool off. Maybe the next city will have a pool and they can stop for a dip. And by chance they do find one, but it's closed for lunch and the family can't wait. They talk the lifeguard into letting the girls take a quick swim and then they'll be on their way. And as the mother walks away to find a cool drink, leaving the girls in the care of the lifeguard who watches over them while she eats her lunch, she has an overwhelming feeling of fear.
"Where are the children?"
It takes only a moment. One glance away. A kiss bestowed by a boyfriend. An older sister turned away watching the pair in fascination. And the younger sister sees something at the bottom of the pool she wants. But she doesn't realize just how deep the water is and plunges in head first. Pure terror for the parents.
The story finally wraps around, and the reader discovers just why the narrator brought up the death of the little boy she knew so many years ago in childhood. It's not just the death, and the circumstances and the fear of it all being repeated, but the understanding--now as an adult herself--of what the adults experienced. She now sees it all from the other angle.
"When I stood apart from my parents at Steve Gauley's funeral and watched them, and had this new, unpleasant feeling about them, I thought that I was understanding something about them for the first time. It was a deadly serious thing. I was understanding they were implicated. Their big, stiff, dressed-up bodies did not stand between me and sudden death, or any kind of death. They gave consent. So it seemed. They gave consent to the death of children and to my death not by anything they said or thought but by the very fact that they had made children--they had made me. They had made me, and for that reason my death--however grieved they were, however they carried on--would seem to them anything but impossible or unnatural. This was a fact, and even then I knew they were not to blame."
This is a story, to take it directly from the narrative--of trust and forgiveness--a lesson that can only be learned through time and experience.
Alice Munro is brilliant. Have I already said that? I'm joining Buried in Print's ongoing reading project as she works her way through all of Alice Munro's story collections in the order they were published. I only wish I had joined in at the start. Next week's story is "Fits". Do you think it's weird to read two books by one author concurrently? I am itching to go back and read Munro's first story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. I've always been too greedy when it comes to books and stories, but when I read Alice Munro I really can't help myself.