Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Canada: Beggar Maid, The (Alice Munro)

The first book of this project turned out to be The Beggar Maid, by this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature, Alice Munro. While not about Canada, this work takes place in Canada, with cameo appearances by the Toronto Train Station and Vancouver, B.C. and an entire episode in the town of Powell River, where the topography of the town itself matters. There are also brief mentions of Yellowknife and Yukon gold fields. Most of the work is set in fictional locales West Hanratty and Hanratty (west is "wrong side of the tracks"), Ontario.

While not about the geography of a place, this collection of closely linked stories is the geography of a mid-century Canadian woman's mental voyage, from childhood to middle age, told in the third person. We follow Rose from extreme youth on the poor side of town, which is just how life is - don't feel sorry for us, through the opportunities offered through education. She starts with a profound awareness of herself as a separate being, even as a child. Her education is less about growing self-awareness than it is about growing awareness that one can be an individual and also connected with others. For many of the tales, the two perspectives seem to be in tension although there are moments of resolution, when self and interpersonal connections are allowed to co-exist and even do so with joy.

The notion of the story is critical, both as a literary form and within the stories themselves, as story-telling plays an important role in how Rose forms and expresses her deep feelings about the world around her. She apprehends her world more through sensibility than sense, to borrow Austen's phrase.

I've grown up with tales of my own mother's life, of people's progress from rural and poor to less rural and less poor, and--oh what a wonder--free to make choices based on preference and possibly circumstance, less driven by what must be done to endure, to survive. One key difference, however, is the accepted rough brutality of Rose's childhood home (including, in order of appearance in Rose's awareness, child abuse, rape, "tribal beating" of a neighboring bad father, and bullying by school peers). 

The details in Munro's work are sharp and true.  Here is just one of the many passages I marked:

"For breakfast, they too had tea and porridge. Puffed Rice in the summertime. The first morning the Puffed Rice, light as pollen, came spilling into the bowl, was as festive, as encouraging a time as the first day walking on the hard road without rubbers [rainboots] or the first day the door could be left open in the lovely, brief time between frost and flies. (p. 41)"

I particularly love that last bit about the open door.

Another telling detail includes the fact that if you matter to Rose, you have a first name, and only a first name. If you are a secondary character, you have first and last names. Some characters have only a role, such as "Head Librarian" or "U.C. minister."  It is interesting to note the switches in the name game with regard to Patrick, who appears in the keystone story "The Beggar Maid."  I am really trying to avoid spoilers here.

Have you read The Beggar Maid, or any of the freestanding stories within it that appeared in the late 1970s in Viva, The New Yorker, Redbook or elsewhere?  What did you think? 

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