“An Ounce of Cure” is a short coming-of-age story by Alice Munro, included in her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). The title is a shortened form of the idiomatic expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Maybe Benjamin Franklin came up with that (or Mark Twain, or Albert Einstein… who knows, you get where I’m going with that).
In any case, it’s better to prevent something happening in the first place than trying to fix it afterwards. I’m more familiar with expressions around ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’. And what does it mean for this story?
Basically, a woman looks back on her early teenage years. She did something very stupid out of naivety and lack of experience. But in hindsight, she can see that this stupid event, awful and humiliating and terrible at the time, was actually a good thing.
My father has a few very good examples of Fortunate Stupidity from his own youth.
The first involves cigarettes. His father smoked, as almost all men did in those days. All of my father’s siblings started smoking as well, and almost all of his peers. My father was unusual in that he never took up smoking. His reason? As a kid he once gathered up all his father’s cigarette butts, rolled them together in new paper, lit up and inhaled a factory-chimney-load of gunk into his lungs. This was such an unpleasant experience he never touched cigarettes again. (Well, there are a few shots of him smoking in the black and white photographs of his youth, but I believe those were posed.)
The other involves driving behaviour. My father grew into an anxious, careful driver but in his youth was overconfident. He had a few near-death experiences on the roads, caused only due to his own stupidity and alcohol consumption. He ended up in court once, after a minor collision which could have been much worse. With the hindsight of middle-age he was able to look back on himself as a cocky young man and figure that those experiences were far, far better than what might’ve happened had he not been the lucky beneficiary of such unpleasant lessons.
If you know any middle-aged people who were tearaways in their youth, I’m sure they’ll give you some excellent examples. They’ll want you to learn from their mistakes. (I’ve heard the above stories numerous times. They stuck with me, but not with my brothers, who had to learn the same lessons themselves when it came to cocky driving and near-death experiences.) When older people tell these stories, they’ll often look back on their younger selves as if the younger selves were different people entirely. They’ve changed so much they no longer recognise themselves.
To use the terminology of narratology, this is what we call an ‘extradiegetic narrator‘. When a first person narrator looks back retrospectively with extra insight than they had at the time, they are no longer part of the story’s milieu, hence the ‘extra-‘. They are no longer part of the diegesis. Hence the ‘diegetic’.
Other terminology to describe this mode of storytelling: retrospective first person. Alice Munro’s story would be told very differently if it were recounted by, say, a 16-year-old looking back on her 15-year-old self.
- Can you think of examples of fortunate stupidity from your own life, or perhaps passed down to you from parents and other older members of your family?
- To what extent is the narrator culpable, the night she got horribly drunk? And how is what happened not her fault?
- Who else in this story treats someone else badly?
- What kind of stories have influenced the teenage narrator as she grew up? What sorts of stories would she have been reading in magazines? What were her brothers hearing on the radio at home?
- How would you describe the teenage narrator’s relationship with her mother? What does the mother do right? What does she do wrong?
- Looking back on her fifteen-year-old self, the narrator is glad the whole sorry incident happened. Why?
WHAT HAPPENS IN “AN OUNCE OF CURE”
A first person narrator looks back on her teenage years. This is a drunken antic story, so first she tells us her own parents were not heavy drinkers. (If they were drinkers, she’d have had a better idea what alcohol can do to the body.) If her father ever drank, he did it outside the house.
The custom of drinking outside the house was common in the early 20th century — see it also in “A Real Life“, in which a husband only ever drinks in the barn. The home was a sacred space.
As a teenager she felt her mother was never proud of her, and never hoped good things would happen to her own daughter as it happened for other daughters. However, the narrator is loathe to blame her mother for what happened the night she got drunk. But her self-confidence isn’t exactly at an all time high because she’s been in love with a Martin Collingwood for an entire year and he’s dumped her for another girl. She isn’t over him, though he has done nothing to deserve any enduring affection. His one drawcard: He’s the first boy to have kissed her ‘effectively’. It also helps that he played Mr Darcy in the school play. She has spent ‘ten times as many hours thinking about Martin Collingwood…as [she] ever spent with him’. She recalls how emo she was about the entire thing, even considering death by aspirin. (She gets as far as swallowing six.)
Now it’s April. The narrator is spending her evening babysitting for the Berrymans: a young couple who live in the village, are here for the husband’s work, but who are psychologically attached to the city. They return there often for date nights, and need a local girl to take care of their children.
The Berrymans leave for a night out with friends and the babysitter narrator is now left alone and morbid. (This isn’t really a story about babysitting because the children are already in bed.)
So what does she do? She puts on the most emo records in the house. Well she listens to the Danse Macabre, but if she’d been about half a century younger she might’ve been listening to Bonnie Raitt.
She admires the shadow a bare branch casts on the window… She’s no longer in the midst of her bustling household. She’s alone, all is quiet, leaving her free to indulge in her lovelorn depression.
So she gets into the liquor. Unfamiliar with the strength of spirits, she drinks far too much, collapses into a chair with the room spinning, and calls her girlfriends Joyce and Kay for help. The girls are keyed-up, as they always are with boys around. They bring three boys to the Berrymans’ house, where they find the narrator on the bathroom tiles.
The third boy sees a drunk girl and considers her fair game. He doesn’t respect her body language which clearly says ‘no’, and proceeds to touch her. In a move which is no doubt recognisable to femme presenting people everywhere, she tries not to let him know she’s been rattled by his sexual advance, and yells, “Watch me walk in a straight line!”
The Berrymans turn up at the most inopportune moment. She’s driven home in disgrace, confesses everything to her mother. The mother patches things up with The Berrymans by taking around a replacement bottle of liquor, but makes the mistake of telling the gossipy Mrs Berryman too much, and soon the young narrator’s most private business (including the suicide attempt) is all over town.
The stigma is such that no one wants anything to do with her again, not as a babysitter, not for anything. Her bad reputation is eventually trumped by a ‘fat blonde girl in Year Ten’ who ‘ran away with a married man and was picked up two months later, living in sin—though not with the same man—in the city of Sault Ste. Marie.’
Hold that last sentence in your head, because whose voice is that? A modern, enlightened reader is unlikely to say a girl in Year Ten (a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old) ‘ran away with a married man’. No, one might hope for a headline more along the lines of: MAN ABDUCTS FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL.
The narrator has adopted (or is mimicking for critique) the language of oppression, in which young women are blamed for all kinds of debauch. Of course, Alice Munro has withheld until near the end exactly how young this teenager was. She is fifteen at most. She is a child.
Not that the stigma of loss-of-control in young women has lost its stigma. Here we have an example of internalised stigma and shame in a 2022 memoir:
The Year My Vagina Broke
On a crisp fall day during my senior year of college, I called a local feminist clinic in a state of panic and described, in great detail, what was happening to my vagina. I was standing outside one of my classes, hoping no one would hear me chronicle the goings-on of my nether regions. Weeks prior I had begun experiencing an itching and burning sensation, and I very quickly concluded that I had an STD. The woman on the line was patiently reassuring me that it was likely a “garden variety” vaginal infection, but I wasn’t convinced. To me, “garden variety” made it sound like what was happening between my legs was fecund and beautiful, when it was most definitely not. “Are you sure?” I asked, pacing, autumn leaves crunching under my feet. “What if it’s an STD?”
Just the thought of it filled me with shame and disgust. It didn’t matter that I had had sex with only one person, who was a virgin, with a condom, in the past few months. I was convinced I was a diseased degenerate. Even though I considered myself a feminist, and it was 2005, and I knew that sex—even the casual kind—was not inherently evil or immoral, I believed that God or the Universe or perhaps my pious female ancestors from the great beyond were punishing me for putting out. Cochina, I thought to myself.opening paragraphs from Crying in the Bathroom, a 2022 memoir by Erika L. Sánchez
BAKHTIN’S CONCEPT OF HETEROGLOSSIA
Heteroglossia means multiple voices. It can refer to a diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view in a literary work.
Example: In a novel, you might have the voice of the characters (dialogue) and the voice of the unseen narrator. These are two different voices, at least. We all speak differently to our friends, children, partners and work associates. This is heteroglossia.
The term heteroglossia was introduced by the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin in his “Discourse in the Novel” (1934). Adjective: heteroglossic.
Now, I’d love to examine this story from a heteroglossic point of view, as has been done for the film Stand By Me. The boys in that film sometimes parrot what they’ve heard around them, what their parents have said about them, what they think their friends would like to hear… Unfortunately we don’t get any dialogue in Alice Munro’s story aside from the first person narration of the much older woman recounting an incident from her own youth. But I’d love to hear the teenager speak. Would she channel her mother? Mrs Berryman? Elizabeth Darcy? (More likely Lydia, perhaps.)
Nonetheless, we can fill in some gaps here, because Alice Munro has offered literary allusions. Why was the young narrator mooning over a boy? Because she’d seen it happen in Pride and Prejudice. Because she’d seen extreme self-sacrifice in “The Little Mermaid”, because she was reading love stories in magazines for girls, and talking about fashion fails and successes with her friends. Many influences in her life had conspired to teach her that pining after a boy is a perfectly legit way to spend your teenage years.
Let’s not lose sight of this fact: In talking about heteroglossia, Bakhtin wasn’t just naval gazing for kicks. He was interested in how that relates to power structures. Bakhtin wanted us to understand there is no such thing as a single, solitary language which exists in a linguistic, literary, or existential vacuum, untouched and unaffected.
What power structures are exemplified by Alice Munro in “An Ounce of Cure?” Gendered power structures, with men at the top. The love-object boy moved on quickly. It took the girl narrator much longer, and it was a lot more painful, but she did learn not to moon after uncaring boys. We can deduce this lesson has served her well since.
Even young children are capable of sophisticated manipulation of language. When they play, children appropriate social roles and rules in pretend scenarios and use a variety of ‘voices’ in role enactment. They are able to channel the dominant, ideological voice of the ‘official culture’. The official culture of Alice Munro’s story: Girls spend excessive amounts of time pining after boys, losing themselves for extended periods. This is all accepted, reinforced and encouraged by the landscape of story, even when it’s not accepted by your own mother.
So let’s take a closer look at one significant literary allusion in “An Ounce of Cure”: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”.
If you’d like to hear “The Little Mermaid” read aloud, I recommend the retellings by Parcast’s Tales podcast series. (They have now moved over to Spotify.) These are ancient tales retold using contemporary English, complete with music and Foley effects. Some of these old tales are pretty hard to read, but the Tales podcast presents them in an easily digestible way. “The Little Mermaid” was published Feb 2020.
ALLUSION TO “THE LITTLE MERMAID” BY HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN
The narrator compares her teenage self to the Little Mermaid drinking the witch’s potion.
Here’s what that means: In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story, the Little Mermaid is longing for the prince and also for an eternal soul. To this end, she visits the Sea Witch, who lives in a dangerous part of the ocean. The witch sells The Little Mermaid a potion which will give her human legs. In exchange, she must give up her voice, which is quite a significant blow, as the Little Mermaid has the most enchanting voice in the whole world. Also, she won’t be able to speak.
The Little Mermaid guzzles the lot without much thought, so desperate is she for the prince.
Andersen’s tale is not really a children’s story.
Andersen dealt with female beings more overtly sexual and far less childlike than the nursery fairy: post-pubescent women, driven by desire to act out appalling rites of bloodshed, self-sacrifice and self-loss. His Little Mermaid is not a mermaid because she is a temptress. While the Fairy of the Garden of Paradise is an unwilling seductress, the mermaid completely lacks seductive powers. Or rather, she gives them up in an effort to seduce. Once voiceless, she is the hapless victim of the seductive powers of humans. Reversing the power relations of the usual mermaid story, Andersen gives the human prince all the destructive delight of the mermaid, and gives the mermaid the burning desire of the sailor-victim. What did such a reversal mean? Andersen seemed to want to explore realms of forbidden desire. The mermaid cannot possess the prince because of their difference. But here, difference might represent sameness.Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
THE DISNEY VERSION OF THE LITTLE MERMAID: A FEMINIST BREAKTHROUGH?
Disney turned it into a children’s story. Actually, a story for a dual audience.
The narrator of Munro’s story will have read Andersen’s original tale, or perhaps a bowdlerized version of it, but it was a much later generation of children who grew up with the Disney version of this story. (That would be my generation, though I’ve still not personally watched it.)
There was a relative paucity of children’s films when I was a kid, back in the 80s, so The Little Mermaid was big whoop:
[The scarcity of children’s films] began to change in the late eighties with the release of The Little Mermaid, the studio’s first animated feature in more than a decade. With its Caribbean-flavoured musical score and the zany antics of characters like Sebastian and the singing crab, the film was an immediate hit with kids. But to their amazement, Disney executives found that it appealed to adults as well. Almost overnight, The Little Mermaid had made Disney movies, as one company executive told Entertainment Weekly, “okay for grown-ups.” The film also laid down the formula for the fabulously successful string of animated features put out by the company through the nineties. To keep adults interested, the films offered tuneful, reasonably sophisticated musical scores (which reached a pinnacle with the Oscar-winning Beauty and the Beast in 1991) and hip, knowing pop culture references, played to especially great effect by Robin Williams’ fast-talking genie in Aladdin.from Honey, We Lost the Kids: rethinking childhood in the multimedia age by Kathleen McDonnell
WAS THE DISNEY ADAPTATION REALLY A FEMINIST TRIUMPH?
Believe it or not, when Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid came out in the 1990s, (mostly male) critics were welcoming this film as a feminist triumph. Remember, Munro’s short story was published in the 1960s, from the perspective of a grown woman. Munro’s story concerns early 20th century girlhood. Feminism had not yet started to worry about “The Little Mermaid”. (There were other, pressing issues.)
Hear a feminist perspective on “The Little Mermaid” at the Femlore podcast.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel gives up her voice to win over a man, heralds a trend: In the next five Disney princess films, male characters have three times as many lines as females do.Men Have Been Telling Women to Shut Up for at Least 3,000 Years
Back to Alice Munro’s story, and the narrator who pined desperately and at length for the first boy to kiss her properly.
It’s interesting to take a look at the forces which would have conspired to shape this young woman and her mooning over a boy. What was she reading, watching and hearing all around her which encouraged her to pine so much after a young man who, as we know from the mother’s perspective, is completely full of himself and not worth her time? As mentioned above, Pride and Prejudice is also alluded to in the text and in fact occupies much of her extracurricular time. She feels “all girls” are in love with Darcy (not something I’d expect to hear out of our queer literate youth of today).
FAIRY GODMOTHER IN A BOTTLE
You’ve probably heard of deus-ex-machina, meaning God from the machine. (A god descends from the sky to save the day and resolve the plot in a story.) Dea-ex-machina is a specifically female version. (Dea is the feminine form of deus.)
The Little Mermaid contains a dea-ex-machina in the Daughter of the Air, which saves the mermaid from annihilation. The Daughters of the Air are like nursery fairies and sprites i.e. they have no desire of their own but are all about helping others, especially saving children.
In Alice Munro’s “An Ounce of Cure”, the dea-ex-machina comes out of a bottle, in combination with her own mother—not a sea witch archetype who works against the younger woman, but a sympathetic mother who is there for her without judgement when she is most needed.
THE TRAGIC ENDING OF THE LITTLE MERMAID
In Andersen’s story, the Little Mermaid traded her mermaid life for a human form and the possibility of gaining a human soul, but only if the prince were to fall in love with her. If not, she would die the day after his wedding, and dissolve into foams in the sea.
Unfortunately, she failed to secure the love of the prince. But her sisters bargained with the sea witch. They gave up their long hair for a way out. They present her with a knife to kill the prince. If she does this, she can become a mermaid again. Otherwise she will die. The Little Mermaid does not have the heart to kill the prince.
RELATED AND INTERESTING
- Did The Little Mermaid influence Wonder Woman?
- Some consider Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo a take on The Little Mermaid tale. (The similarity is that in both stories, a sea creature wishes to become human.)
- Daniel Mallory Ortberg wrote a series called “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” and his version of “The Little Mermaid” is, well, check it out for yourself. (Available in archived form.)
- Andersen’s biographer Alison Prince suggests Andersen was bi+ (or pansexual) and that he was in love with a boy out of his reach not only because of his gender in a homophobic era but also because he was of a different class. Of course, most biographers forget that asexual is also a thing, and it’s equally likely he was a homoromantic asexual.
- This steamgraph infographic shows how many more children’s films have been produced by decade, compared with other genres such as drama, Westerns and musicals. I thought I noticed an abundance of films for kids, but until I saw the infograph I wondered if I was imagining it. It’s easy to imagine things – like when you get a new car you realise how many other people have exactly the same car, even though you never noticed them before.
CONFESSION TO MOTHER
The blurting-to-sympathetic-mother scene is left as a gap in Alice Munro’s short story, but a very similar scene is included in The Fallout, a 2021 feature film starring Jenna Ortega (who also plays the latest Wednesday Addams). The ‘fallout’ of the title is a school shooting, which has killed a number of classmates and traumatised a community. Main character Vada goes on a bender. Eventually her life feels all too much and after conflict with her family, she finally decides to tell her mother everything that’s been going on with her. The mother, played by the Modern Family mother, is in the kitchen at the time, trying to make herself a cup of tea.
Vada: I’m sorry. I love you.
Mother: Sweetie, I love you too.
Vada: I’m gonna try to be more honest with you, about my life.
Mother: I would really, really like that.
Vada: I’ve been really struggling.
Vada: And… I don’t know why it’s been so hard to tell you. Like, I just didn’t want you to worry. You’re right. I was acting funny that time I was drunk, because I did have sex with someone.
Vada: And I was a little bit stoned. But not as stoned as I was when I was on E. Jesus, that was rough. And the person I was having sex with wasn’t the person I thought I was maybe gonna be having sex with, but I’m telling you all this because I want you to know that I’m never gonna do any of that stuff ever again.
Vada: You know, the bad… the bad stuff.
Mother: Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Well, thank you for ah… for trusting me.
Mother: With this information.
Vada: Was that too much?
Mother: No! I’m… processing.
Vada: Don’t worry. It was with a girl.
Vada: The sex stuff? Was with a girl? So, it’s not like I’m gonna get pregnant. That’s a bonus, right?
Mother: Yeah. Bonus. [takes a very long swig of wine]
Mother: Okay. I’m ready to talk about it more now.The Fallout, 2021
TO WHAT EXTENT WAS THE NARRATOR CULPABLE?
It’s often said that girls mature faster than boys—a cultural narrative which has hugely problematic consequences for girls, who so often lose the tail end of their own childhood as a result. Whatever problematic narrative is true of girls applies with extra force when it comes to Black girls.
So when adults employ girls to babysit their children, they get what they pay for, so to speak. “An Ounce of Cure” is a babysitting story. The culture is full of babysitting stories, which are especially prevalent in erotic fiction in which the nubile babysitter is the sex object. Babysitters also feature prominently in horror and urban legend, which, in the social milieu in which Alice Munro was writing this story (the 1960s), divided babysitting young women into Good Girls and Bad Girls. Bad Girls were punished. Good girls, too, were frequently also punished by maniac intruders, but were presented as The Perfect Victim. (Alice Munro explores the Good Girl, Bad Girl dichotomy in other work, notably in “The Peace of Utrecht” from this same collection.)
But here, in “An Ounce of Cure”, Alice Munro has reclaimed the false binary of the Good and Bad girl and written a first person narrative through the eyes of an extradiegetic narrator who looks back on her own early teenage babysitting blunder with deep understanding of the forces which contributed to her decisions that night, and who can view her younger self with compassion.
ON BINGE DRINKING
“we need to stop the stigma towards drug users and addicts” and “we need to challenge the idea that being sober makes you boring” and “we need to stop acting like binge drinking to the extent you’re doing medical damage is fun and normal for young people” are all ideas that can and should coexist.smoldragonborn
just so we’re clear, the threshold for “binge drinking to the extent you’re doing medical damage” is waaaay lower than you think.
I work in an obstetrician and gynaecologist’s office. we have to tell patients on a regular basis that they are binge drinking weekly when they think they are simply consuming a normal amount of alcohol on the weekends.
having more than 3 drinks in a single sitting if you have an estrogen based endocrine system is a binge that is medically significant.
having more than 5 in a sitting is a medically significant binge for someone with a testosterone based endocrine system.
every time you do this, it significantly impacts your risk of getting breast cancer, and damages your liver. it takes time to recover from that liver damage. if you’re having a 3-5 or more drink binge on a weekly basis, you are an alcoholic, medically speaking, and your liver is not recovering.
again: the bar for what binge drinking is, medically, is so much lower than what you think it is.
alcohol is a really toxic substance and not something you should fuck around with.
again: if you have an estrogenized hormone system (common for most women), then 3 drinks is a binge. if you have a testosteronized hormone system (common for most men), then 5 drinks is a binge.
anything above that number, consumed as frequently as weekly or more, and you’re medically a binge drinking alcoholic.
also, if you’re drinking any quantity of alcohol 6 days a week or more, that’s another threshold at which, medically speaking, you meet the definition of alcoholism. your liver needs more days without alcohol in your system than just one a week to recover and be healthy.
I don’t say any of this to shame anyone—to me, alcoholism or substance use disorders aren’t a sign of weakness or moral failing. and most of us genuinely don’t know this stuff.
rather—I point this out because it’s important to reduce harm, and find ways to live healthier, happier lives. there is a life outside of constant binge drinking. it’s not always easy to find it. but it’s out there. you deserve a life where your emotional needs are met by something other than alcohol, and a life in which your liver is healthy, and the ways you cope and celebrate and find joy don’t put you at increased risk of cancer.
also–even if alcohol is the only way you can self-medicate, or if you choose to go on with your alcohol usage anyway regardless of other options–you still deserve to know what it’s doing to your body.
information is key. you don’t have to stop drinking, but the utter lack of education on alcohol + the normalization of binge drinking in current society leads to many people drinking without any idea of what it’s doing to their bodies.
addicts deserve accurate medical information regardless of what they decide to do with it. for some people, losing liver function is worth the benefits they get from binge drinking, but they can’t make that choice if they don’t know what the consequences are to begin with.qweerhet
addicts deserve accurate medical information regardless of what they decide to do with it.jeanjauthor
OTHER STORIES IN DANCE OF THE HAPPY SHADES (1968)
- “Walker Brothers Cowboy” — A woman looks back at her 1930s childhood. Her family has 2 or 3 months earlier lost the family fox farm and moved to a small town on the edge of Lake Huron, where the father has started a new job as a door-to-door salesman. Meanwhile, the mother sinks into a depressive state. One day, the father takes the narrator and her younger brother on a ride, where he visits an old friend/lover. The daughter learns that her father had another sort of life once.
- “The Shining Houses” — In a new neighbourhood, many houses have been built next to an old one. The owner of the older house, Mrs. Fullerton, does not take care of her property to the extent that the owners of the new houses would like. They conspire to get rid of the old poultry-farming witch. Only our narrator seems conflicted.
- “Images” — A little girl is the narrator of this double character study: A second cousin who came to take care of the household while her own mother was sick, and a man with a psychotic mental illness who lived alone in the woods. After meeting the man in the woods, the little girl learns not to be afraid of the woman who has infiltrated the household to take care of them all.
- “Thanks for the Ride” — This story is written with the viewpoint character of a young man. He has just finished school and is out with his older cousin with the purpose of losing his virginity. Together they pick up some ‘loose’ girls. The whole experience is perfunctory and defamiliarizing.
- “The Office” — A housewife decides to improve her life by carving out some time for herself to pursue her passion of writing. So she rents a room above a hair salon and drugstore. But the landlord won’t leave her in peace, deeming her time his.
- “An Ounce of Cure“
- “The Time of Death” — A mother who lives in one of the squalid cottages on the edge of town has lost a child in a terrible accident. The village gathers round, but how genuine are they in their grief?
- “Day of the Butterfly” — Two girls at a primary school are ostracised. One is the narrator, now grown, ostracised for being an out-of-towner who doesn’t wear the right clothes. The other is more ostracised still, because her parents are immigrants, because she smells like rotting fruit, and because her brother needs her to accompany him to the toilet. When this girl is dying in hospital from child leukemia, the young narrator is filled with inexplicable grief. It is now too late to be a real friend to this outcast, and anything she does in kindness will feel empty and pointless.
- “Boys and Girls” — An outdoorsy farm girl loves helping her father on the fox farm but realises she’ll very soon be required to go indoors to help her mother with domestic work. In contrast, her younger brother, far less conscientious, will be allowed to stay outside and work with the animals, enfolded and welcomed into the masculine world.
- “Postcard” — A woman around the age of 30 has been seeing a man for years. They’re long-term partners. The reason they haven’t married: He’s waiting for his mother to die. His mother wouldn’t approve of him marrying the narrator, we deduce because of the wealth disparity. Unfortunately for the narrator (Helen), turns out the guy never intended to marry her anyway. He sends her a postcard from Florida telling her how he’s having such a good time. Next minute, Helen’s best friend is round to break the bad news: It’s been published in the paper, the lover is getting married to someone else after all this time. The weasel didn’t have the gumption to let Helen know. So she goes round to his house, stands outside and expresses her grief in a very vocal way.
- “Red Dress—1946” — A thirteen-year-old girl’s first ball. Her mother sews a red dress with a princess neckline. Suddenly she looks much older. She barely recognises herself in the mirror, and longs for childhood again. Almost all the girls around her are obsessively interested in boys. Everyone, that is, except one other girl who says she despises boys, and plans to support herself by working as a P.E. teacher. But by aligning herself with this queer girl, our thirteen-year-old risks much. What will she do? Will she take up the offer of friendship?
- “Sunday Afternoon” — Seventeen-year-old Alva has recently finished high school and started working as a maid for the mega-wealthy Gannetts. Today they are hosting a party at their mansion and Alva must navigate a delicate social situation: They want her to feel part of the family, but what does that mean, exactly, when you’re actually the paid help? Alva must also navigate the men who enter the house, several of whom express sexual interest in her. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, predictable young-woman-is-seduced storyline, but Alice Munro keeps readers in audience superior position as we watch with bated breath what happens to Alva in this big, lonely island of a house. We’re left to deduce most of it.
- “A Trip to the Coast” — An eleven-year-old girl called May lives with her mother and grandmother (mostly her grandmother) in a general store in a three-house township. There’s nothing to do in this one horse town. But today she’s looking forward to same-age company. However, the “company” is a total let-down, and so her grandmother, for the first time ever, suggests the two of them take a trip to the coast. But then another visitor comes. A customer who declares himself an amateur hypnotist. This story ends on a cliff hanger, and I don’t believe Munro has given us enough of a symbolic layer to fill in the gaps for ourselves. I believe we’re supposed to feel exactly as unmoored as eleven-year-old May, waiting out front of the store in the rain.
- “The Peace of Utrecht” — Numerous critics and scholars consider this story the jewel of the crown of Munro’s first collection. Considering that, it’s baffling why it doesn’t make it into more Selected and Collection volumes. It’s certainly the most overtly personal of Munro’s early stories, and she has said in interview that this one changed the way she wrote. Until writing “The Peace of Utrecht” she’d written to be a writer. Now she wrote because she knew only she could write this story. The biographical relevancy: young Alice Munro cared for her mother over many years as her mother lived, then died, with Parkinson’s disease.
- “Dance of the Happy Shades” — An emotionally astute and very observant adolescent girl is required to accompany her mother to an embarrassing recital with the elderly, unfortunate-looking spinster teacher whose spinster sister is recently bedridden due to a stroke. The story is told via the slightly baffled viewpoint of the girl, who is required to recite a tune on the piano at these excruciating annual events.