Brunswick Public Library and I are locked in a bitter debate. They claim that the copy of ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ with the Brunswick Public Library stamp on it is theirs, however, I claim that it belongs in my possession. Every three weeks after I borrow it, they always send me a polite (librarians can be nothing but polite) reminder that they want their book back. I humour them by returning it, only to borrow it out again. Perhaps we have a shared custody arrangement; they have the book on weekends and holidays, while I look after it during the week, making sure it gets to school properly and is in bed by the right time each night.
I wanted to talk about one of the other stories in the collection for this blog, but I just can’t get over the first story ‘Walkers Brothers Cowboy ‘ This story is usually cited as the must read one by Alice Munro. There’s good reason too.
The story is written in plain language, but is told from the perspective of a young girl who, along with her even younger brother, accompanies their father as he sells products for Walker Brothers. Walker Brothers is a company we are told, which “sells almost entirely in the country, the back country.” The father makes up an ironic song which he sings to himself when the customers aren’t around. “And have all liniments and oils, for everything from corns to boils…”
It is apparent the mother is not very happy with the father’s new line of work. The family used to have a farm were they raised foxes, but they had a run of bad luck, and were forced to sell up. This fall in society has seemed to affected the mother much more than the father, who seems to have taken their new circumstances with a grain of salt. He doesn’t seem to mind his work as a Walkers Brothers man; his line of work almost amuses him.
One day they are out, the father seems to be having a bad run of luck visiting the old farmsteads. He knocks on one door, and no one comes to answer. He knocks on the door again, and someone empties a chamber pot from one of the upstairs windows.
The father tries to take it in good humour in front of the children, most of the stuff had missed him, but when he gets in the car, he drives past all the other houses on his route, and keeps travelling out into the country.
There he drops into a house belonging to a woman from his past. They haven’t seen each other in a long time, the woman is surprised to meet the man’s son and daughter. The father and the woman reminisce. The daughter asks her father to sing the Walkers Brothers song he has made up, the father is reluctant but he does so anyway.
The woman puts on a record, and teaches the daughter to dance. She then dances with the father. The three leave, telling the woman to come to visit the family one time, but the daughter realises the woman will never come.
Driving back, the father stops and buys the children liquorice. He doesn’t say anything, but the daughter knows there are certain details of the visit, like the dancing, that she can never tel her mother.
I love this story. It is such a fine example of New Yorker style naturalism. The buried meanings in the work are fantastic, and yet, at the end, you can’t really pin your finger on what the visit actually meant. Characters are wonderful when they are hiding things. The father appears to have handled the family’s change in circumstance much better than the mother, but there seems to be another layer beneath his optimism.