I basically trudged through the first chapter of this book; I even chose a new book in case all that archival material and historical detail bogged me down to the point that I decided to ditch it. But I’m very glad that I persevered, because immediately after that first chapter recounting the 19th century history of the family, the text bloomed into Alice Munro’s delectable narration. I remember reading on Twitter something like “instead of/alongside attending creative writing courses, aspiring authors should study a bit of psychology and sociology.” Alice Munro’s texts have repeatedly proven the validity of this piece of advice. (She probably has a flair for observing the human condition, without having to study these two subjects.) I love the way she picks up a thought, a casual comment, a frown or a mischievous smile and then dissects it, inspecting every piece from every angle in an unhurried and measured way. Her fiction has a calming effect on me. (That’s why I sought out her book from my bookshelf in the first place.)
So in this book, Munro interweaves fact and fiction to write a family history spanning three centuries. In the foreword she implies that only the initial inspiration and the blueprint is derived from history, insisting that “these are stories” (x: emphasis in original).
One of my favourite bits is this rather long passage about her mother (worth reading). The family runs a fox fur business, her father does the grunt work in the pens, which includes killing the animals through chemical asphyxiation, while her mother dresses up and goes to middle-class venues to sell fur capes and scarves. One year the sales don’t go that well and when her mother goes away to a fancy hotel for a while, the rest of the family waits anxiously because they need that money desperately. The venture is a success and everyone is relieved. But our protagonist is less than impressed with all this sales business:
“She would talk for years afterwards about what she had achieved that summer. How she had known the right way to go about it, never pushing too hard, showing the furs as if it was a great pleasure to her and not a matter of money. A sale would seem to be the last thing on her mind. It was necessary to show people who ran the hotel that she would not cheapen the impression they wanted to make, that she was anything but a huckster. A lady, rather, whose offerings added a unique distinction. She had to become a friend of the management and the employees as well as the guests.
And that was no chore for her. She had the true instinct for mixing friendship and business considerations, the instinct that all good salespersons have. She never had to calculate her advantage and coldly act upon it. Everything she did she did naturally and felt a real warmth of heart where her interests lay. She who had always had difficulty with her mother-in-law and her husband’s family, who was thought stuck-up by our neighbors, and somewhat pushy by the town women at the church, had found a world of strangers in which she was at once at home.
For all this, as I grew older, I came to feel something like revulsion. I despised the whole idea of putting yourself to use in that way, making yourself dependent on the response of others, employing flattery so adroitly and naturally that you did not even recognize it as flattery. And all for money. I thought such behavior shameful, as of course my grandmother did. […] I believed – or thought I believed – in working hard and being proud, not caring about being poor and indeed having a subtle contempt for those who led easeful lives” (152-153).
Sales would not be my forte. I’m not good at talking to strangers to start with, mixing friendliness with business is impossible for me and I can’t even “calculate my advantage and coldly act upon it” when necessary. I don’t want this to come across as a show of righteousness, this is a skill that brings success in work life, and missed opportunities make you a resentful person. What’s more, my ineptness in flattery is sometimes taken for rudeness. About having contempt for people who have it better than you, though, I think I do that. I grew up in a privileged environment, but had the benefit of other forms of deprivation that could give me that moral superiority. Even now, as a grown-up person, I allow myself such indulgences every now and then in various areas of life.
Later, she starts working as a maid, and learns that the family lost their first daughter to a tragic accident. During a conversation with the lady of the house, she pokes at this weak spot:
“How strange that I did not question my right to pry, to barge in and bring this to the surface. Part of the reason must have been that in the society I came from, things like that were never buried for good, but ritualistically resurrected, and that such horrors were like a badge people wore – or, mostly that women wore – throughout their lives.
Also it may have been because I would never quite give up when it came to demanding intimacy, or at least some kind of equality, even with a person I did not like.
Cruelty was a thing I could recognize in myself. I thought I was blameless here, and in any dealings with this family. All because of being young, and poor […].
I did not have the grace or fortitude to be a servant” (252).
At a later point in the plot (196) some poetic justice was meted out, which reminded me another reason why I love fiction.