Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories
by Alice Munro (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
(This column first appeared in the February 20, 2003 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
The talent for writing short stories is quite different from that of writing novels. Novels mine vast areas with heavy machinery while short stories, like paleontologists, dig carefully for exquisite gems.
And Alice Munro is a superb short story writer and in this oddly titled book, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, she proves it.
But short stories have never been my cup of tea. I much prefer novels and even series of novels about the same characters. The problem for me with short stories is that I find that I have just sunk my teeth into a story that I enjoy when it is finished and I am left bereft.
Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed these stories. I found them so attractive in fact that I passed the book on to my wife. She in turn enjoyed them, so much in fact that she went back and read all the books she could find by Ms. Munro.
My favorite among these stories is the charming title story. That book and story title is derived from a children's activity similar to the "She loves me, she loves me not" chanted as the petals are removed from a daisy.
The heroine of the story is a plain woman: "With those shoes, and ankle socks instead of stockings, and no hat or gloves in the afternoon, she might have been a farm woman. But she didn't have the hesitation they generally had, the embarrassment. She didn't have country manners -- in fact, she had no manners at all. She had treated him as if he was an information machine. Besides, she had written a town address -- Exhibition Road. The person she really reminded him of was a plainclothes nun he had seen on television, talking about the missionary work she did somewhere in the jungle -- probably they had got out of their nuns' clothes there because it made it easier for them to clamber around. This nun had smiled once in a while to show that her religion was supposed to make people happy, but most of the time she looked out at her audience as if she believed that other people were mainly in the world for her to boss around."
And the villains, two young girls: "There were only a couple of houses whose occupants Mr. McCauley knew and was friendly with -- the schoolteacher, Miss Hood, and her mother, and the Shultzes, who ran the Shoe Repair shop. The Shultzes' daughter, Edith, was or had been Sabitha's great friend. It was natural, with their being in the same grade at school -- at least last year, once Sabitha had been held back -- and living near each other. Mr. McCauley hadn't minded -- maybe he had some idea that Sabitha would be removed before long to live a different sort of life in Toronto. Johanna would not have chosen Edith, though the girl was never rude, never troublesome when she came to the house. And she was not stupid. That might have been the problem -- she was smart and Sabitha was not so smart. She had made Sabitha sly."
The girls play a mean trick on the plain woman, forging letters to her from a man in town. When the man moves on, the girls continue their scheme until they lead the misguided woman to quit her job and follow him. How this tragic situation leads to a happy conclusion makes a very satisfying story.
Like other good short story tellers, Ms. Munro can take you into the mind of her characters in a few lines. She doesn't have chapter after chapter to do this so she has to be quick. Here are a couple of examples of this power.
"She was forty-two, and until recently she had looked younger than her age. Neal was sixteen years older than she was. So she had thought that in the natural course of things she would be in the position he was in now and she had sometimes worried about how she would manage it. Once when she was holding his hand in bed before they went to sleep, his warm and present hand, she had thought that she would hold, or touch this hand, at least once, when he was dead. And she would not be able to believe in that fact. The fact of his being dead and powerless. No matter how long this state had been foreseen, she would not be able to credit it. She would not be able to believe that, deep down, he had not some knowledge of this moment. Of her. To think of him not having that brought on a kind of emotional vertigo, the sense of a horrid drop."
"I had to consider that the rupture might have had nothing to do with me. My stepmother had urged my father into a new sort of life. They went bowling and curling and regularly joined other couples for coffee and doughnuts at Tim Horton's. She had been a widow for a long time before she married him, and she had many friends from those days who became new friends for him. What had happened with him and Alfrida might have been simply one of the changes, the wearing-out of old attachments, that I understood so well in my own life but did not expect to happen in the lives of older people -- particularly, as I would have said, in the lives of people at home."
And what has to be my favorite of her passages is this more extended one that made me feel as though I was one of the characters myself, dealing in this case with a serious and threatening illness: "Polly had moved on from talking about people in town to describing how things were going at home. Not well. The owner of the hardware store -- a man whom Lorna's father had always spoken of as more of a friend than an employer -- had sold the business without a word of what he was intending until the deed was done. The new man was expanding the store at the same time business was being lost to Canadian Tire, and there was not a day that he did not stir up some kind of a row with Lorna's father. Lorna's father came home from the shop so discouraged that all he wanted to do was lie on the couch. He was not interested in the paper or the news. He drank bicarbonate of soda but wouldn't discuss the pains in his stomach.
"There was a rule that nobody could be admitted during the month of December. The holiday season had so many emotional pitfalls. So they made the twenty-minute drive in January. Before they reached the highway the country road dipped through a swampy hollow now completely frozen over. The swamp-oaks and maples threw their shadows like bars across the bright snow.
"Fiona said, 'Oh, remember.'
"Grant said, 'I was thinking about that too.'
"'Only it was in the moonlight,' she said.
"She was talking about the time that they had gone out skiing at night under the full moon and over the black-striped snow, in this place that you could get into only in the depths of winter. They had heard the branches cracking in the cold.
"So if she could remember that so vividly and correctly, could there really be so much the matter with her?
"It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home."