Save The Reaper by Alice Munro

“Save The Reaper” (1998) is a short story by Alice Munro, included in the collection For The Love Of A Good Woman. This story is a re-visioned homage to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find“.

The night before reading “Save The Reaper” I happened to watch Stacey Dooley’s documentary Canada’s Lost Girls, and this has affected my interpretation. Others see the hitchhiker in Munro’s story as dangerous, but that may be inverting the victims, or imposing a too-simplistic binary on the dynamics.

I had heard about the shocking under-investigating of the murder of indigenous Canadian woman but I didn’t know there’s a stretch of road called “The Highway of Tears“, so called because First Nation girls are required to hitch-hike along this road from their separate communities — to go to the doctor, to pick up groceries, to visit relatives — and are immensely vulnerable to travellers with malevolent intent. Many women and girls have been murdered along this stretch of road. Police believe most of the crimes are committed opportunistically, by white men and by First Nation men as well. (I wondered at the definition of ‘opportunistic’. I suspect it means, ‘If I can find a girl to get in my car with me, I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to rape and murder a vulnerable person.’)

HITCH-HIKING IN STORIES

When characters in fictional worlds pick up hitch-hikers things rarely go well for them. See, for instance, Thelma and Louise. The plot in which a hitch-hiker turns out to be bad is so common there’s a name for it — The Hostile Hitch-hiker Trope. But the stats would indicate, especially for certain groups (ie. young, female, aboriginal, addled by substances) the risks of doing the hitch-hiking are far higher than giving someone of that description a lift. The Freakonomics podcast looked into this back in 2011 and found the risks of picking up hitch-hikers are overblown.

In “Save The Reaper”, Alice Munro conveys this fear of hitch-hikers. Also, by subverting a thriller-like plot, she conveys equally that the young hitch-hiker is vulnerable. Set up a trope and bust it, in other words.

Where I come from, hitch-hiking is rare but not illegal. It was a lot more common when I was a young adult. (I didn’t realise that in many states of America, hitch-hiking is illegal.)

STORYWORLD OF “SAVE THE REAPER”

  • Toronto in an apartment (past)
  • A holiday house at Lake Huron shore (present)
  • A run-down house in the middle of nowhere near Lake Huron (wrapper story)

CHARACTERS IN “SAVE THE REAPER”

Sophie — Was studying archeology when she became pregnant with Philip. Now a receptionist in a doctor’s office.

Ian — Daisy’s husband, an urban geographer

Philip — Sophie’s son, four years older than Daisy. His father is not Ian, but a young Irish man who had recently decided not to enter the priesthood and was traveling around North America.

Daisy — Sophie’s toddler-aged daughter. Age-wise, this character is an amalgamation of the daughter and the baby in Flannery O’Connor’s short story.

Eve — Sophie’s mother. An actress. ‘Freckly, sun-wrinkled arms, gray-blond frizzy curls held back by a black hairband.’ Shared an apartment with Sophie and Philip when Philip was a baby. Eve looked after him. But Eve hasn’t seen Sophie since she married Ian. In some ways Eve understands people well and adapts accordingly. For instance, she knows her son-in-law prefers information over opinions and reminiscences so gives him information instead. This could also describe the narrative style of this story, in which we are given information, not interpretation. But how well does Eve really understand people?

In her depiction of Eve, the protagonist of “Save the Reaper,” Munro conveys an older woman’s sense of familial estrangement. In Hateship and Runaway she is exploring in great depth themes of exile and alienation, most poignantly in the triptych of “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” from Runaway; she is also examining other ways whereby one can be estranged— by the fugacity of memory, and by its loss.

Isla Duncan

Thomas — Sophie’s father, from Kerala, originally from the Southern part of India. He was in Canada on a doctor’s fellowship at time of conception (on a train) but had a young family back at home in India.

Herb — Eve and Philip are playing a game and randomly follow this guy to an out-of-the-way hoarded up house of drunkards. Herb does not appear to be right in the head.

Harold — One of the men inside the house, drunk, rude, dismissive, grumpy.

The girl — highly vulnerable, a sex worker, drunk, no money, no clothes of her own.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “SAVE THE REAPER”

A grandmother (Eve) who hasn’t had a close relationship with her daughter (Sophie) in some years suggests she and the daughter and her two grandchildren holiday together near a beach. The daughter cuts her trip short and requests that her husband come pick her up early because the holiday with the mother is driving her mad. While Sophie is at the airport picking up husband, Eve takes her two young grandchildren out on a drive. This adventure bookends the short story. Philip, who is seven, insists Eve follow a beaten up truck because they play a game in which they imagine all sorts of fantasy situations. Eve ends up accidentally following this truck all the way to a house, doing as her seven-year-old grandson has instructed.

Eve remembers from years ago a wall decorated in broken glass which was somewhere around here, perhaps. Stuck in a rundown farm sort of place, and this time against her grandson’s wishes, she gets out to ask the man about it. The man doesn’t know, but invites her inside to ask some other guy. But when Eve enters the house she realises her mistake — it’s a hoarded-up dump of a house, cocooning a group of drunk men playing cards. The vibe is menacing.

She escapes with her two grandchildren without real incident, but on her way out, a young woman gets into the car with her, plonking herself in the front passenger seat. This young woman is drunk, without her own clothing and seems to have been taken there for sex. She makes a pass at Eve, which touches her in some surprising way. Eve drops the girl off on the highway and gives her twenty dollars. She tells the girl to come to her house if she fails to get a lift. This assuages Eve’s conscious in the moment, and leaves her with the uneasy feeling that this may indeed happen, later that night.

When Eve’s daughter and son-in-law get to the house Eve tells them about the journey, but leaves out almost everything that happened. She looks to Philip, her seven-year-old grandson and knows by the look on his face that he won’t say anything to his parents about their scary afternoon, either. He has previously in the story let on to Eve what Sophie told his father on the phone — that she can’t wait to get away from Eve — so this marks a development in his maturity.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SAVE THE REAPER”

NARRATION

If you love to read between the lines,  you’ll appreciate “Save The Reaper”. Here are a few things we are not told at all, or which Munro holds back:

  • We don’t know why Eve and Sophie aren’t on great terms. Eve doesn’t seem to know either, and Eve is our viewpoint character. The third person narrator is close to Eve, does not betray her, and conveys to the reader only the facts. Interestingly, this is how Eve has learned to speak to her son-in-law. Is this Munro signalling to the reader that she, as author/narrator, will leave out her opinion, in a cinéma vérité kind of way? (There’s probably a name for this when it applies to the written word — ‘observational narration’?) As part of this, we are given no clue as to why Sophie is hating this holiday. Another author might at least show the two women in conflict.
  • Munro does not want the reader to know straight away that Eve is Sophie’s mother. I believe this is Munro railing against Flannery O’Connor’s short story, in which the adult women are known only by their roles in relation to others — The Grandmother and the daughter-in-law. In Munro’s story, they are at first presented as same-age friends—perhaps Eve is looking after Sophie’s baby because they are in a same-sex relationship? That may just be my modern take. (This story was published in the 1990s, before most readers would’ve jumped to that.) Within the text, the narration tells us that Eve sees herself as more of a friend to her daughter. This leaves me with all the clues I need — I deduce Sophie’s issue with Eve is that Eve has not mothered her in the way she wishes she was mothered. With her grandson, Eve demonstrates to the reader a wonderful playfulness, but the game ends in danger and half-truth. If this described your entire childhood, such capriciousness would not be so funny.
THE TITLE

What’s with the title? There’s the obvious connection with death — reaper as short for ‘grim reaper’.  In Flannery’s short story, I interpret The Misfit in his black hearse as a worldly Grim Reaper. (I doubt I’m the only one.)

But the more basic meaning is at play here — Eve has had her chance at parenthood. It’s only now that she’s a grandparent that Eve gets to see the end result of her own parenting style. Sometimes grown children use their own parents as negative role models.

SHORTCOMING

Within the story, “Save the Reaper” is a take on a line out of the famous poem “Lady of Shalott,” though Eve can’t remember the lines correctly. Likewise, it’s this story is not being presented in full — is this due to Eve’s failing memory, and the fact the narration is close third person via Eve?

Alice Munro often explores how memory works. Her observation seems to go something like: We misremember things from long ago, and life experience itself changes what we think we know about the past. This is backed up by scientists who study such things.

Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time.

Your Memory Is Like A Telephone Game

If Eve herself has forgotten the details of how she brought her daughter up (my guess: haphazardly), no wonder she doesn’t understand why Sophie has an issue with her.

DESIRE

Eve is a people-pleaser — she wants to make the most of her short time with her grandchildren and fully engages with the game devised by the seven-year-old. Ideally, she would like to finish out the holiday with her daughter as well, and make it an annual thing.

Her deeper desire: She wants to play happy families, and convince herself that everything is fine.

OPPONENT

Mother and daughter are passive Opponents.

The outside Opposition arrive in the form of the men inside the house, who might as well be men inside the woods of O’Connor’s story. The hoarded-up house is to me a metaphor for Eve’s subconscious, and all of the accumulated memories she has haphazardly accumulated over a lifetime.

The men are whittled down to just one woman, and this woman seems to morph before us — from a scary man to a scary woman, to a vulnerable woman to a daughter figure. By the end of the encounter, Eve isn’t sure if this girl is going to turn up at the house. Ditto for her own actual daughter. It seems clear that this girl is a proxy for her own daughter, and her own conflicted ideas about Sophie.

PLAN

Eve wants to reconnect with her daughter so organises a family holiday. On this holiday she will do her best to have a nice time, and do as her daughter and grandchildren want.

This narrows down to a game in which Eve pursues an old truck. Half of this wrapper story is Eve chasing the truck — half of it is Eve metaphorically being chased by the hitch-hiking girl who jumps into her car uninvited. First she chases, then she is chased. This may mimic the tug-of-war nature of the relationship she has had with her own daughter over the years.

BIG STRUGGLE

The escape sequence

ANAGNORISIS

As in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, this isn’t handed to us on a plate.

The grandson has a Anagnorisis regarding truth — people don’t always blurt out the truth. They leave bits out when telling a story.

This young child’s realisation may be connected to Eve’s mature version, not spelt out, but implied — she may have realised at this minute that she hasn’t just omitted parts of today’s story — she has been deliberately leaving out all sorts of things which have led her and her family to this stand-off.

NEW SITUATION

The reader is not let in on the exact details of Eve and Sophie’s issues — we have been given the broadest overview: Eve breezily forgets things from the past; Sophie, as Eve’s child, has had Eve’s life choices thrust upon her, imprinting who she is as a human being, and it frustrates the hell out of her that Eve refuses to ‘remember’ all of that backstory, insisting that they spend time together, pretending everything is fine.

I doubt Sophie will be back holidaying with Eve next year and beyond, because it was the boy who had the realisation, not Eve. However, it’s possible Eve has taken the first step today, which may lead to a later acknowledgement of past hurts.

Header photo by Nick de Partee

A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor

rolling hills with sunset

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a well-known short story by American writer Flannery O’Connor, published 1953. So much has already been said about this story — I will look into its structure from a plotting point of view. It’s also about time I read this story. Without reading Flannery O’Connor’s most famous work I can’t fully appreciate Alice Munro’s 1990s spin on it.

Hear a rare recording of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, at Open Culture.

In Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man in Hard to Find,” wherein a southern matriarch watches—or rather listens—as one-by-one the members of her family are executed by one of a pair of escaped serial killers in the woods close behind her, never once are we told how frightened and horrified she must feel. We aren’t told how she feels at all. The horror implicit in the scene is left entirely to our imagination. Which makes it all the more horrific.

Never State What You Can Imply, Peter Selgin

SETTING OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

A white family goes on a road trip. They are travelling from Tennessee through Georgia to Florida for a holiday. The grandmother, who would’ve been born in the late 1800s, shows a pitiful if kindly attitude towards the Black child they pass on the way. No one else in that car says anything about him at all, except the observation that he is not wearing pants.

THE ENVIRONMENT AS ENDLESSLY RENEWABLE AND GIVING

It is difficult to imagine this attitude now, but The Grandmother tells her grandchildren not to throw their lunch rubbish out the window. The parents remain silent, suggesting this behaviour would’ve been fine with them. It’s only a small detail but reminds me of a scene from Mad Men, in which Don and Betty take the children on a picnic. When they’re done they just leave all the rubbish in the park. Is that what people really did back then? I guess it must be.

When I grew up in 1980s New Zealand there was a TV advertisement showing two children in the back seat of a car, eating fast food, throwing the rubbish out the window. The children were understood to be greedy, lazy and destructive to the environment. The message was to be a Tidy Kiwi. I thought these children were rascals, and couldn’t believe anyone was allowed to eat in the car (we weren’t) let alone throw rubbish out the window. Although the Tidy Kiwi campaign started in the 1960s, by the 1980s, the ‘don’t litter’ message had gotten through to almost everyone. Throughout the 1990s, we were fed the message that if we picked up our own rubbish, we were sufficiently taking care of the environment. By the early 2000s, that had morphed into ‘recycle correctly’. The 2010s and beyond are a different story — right now the onus is on the consumer to avoid buying goods in ‘unnecessary packaging’ in the first place, to create as little rubbish as possible.

Of course this is part of a larger, deeply, more deadly problem — transportation, electricity production and industry are the main culprits in destroying the actual environment at a deep level, and all the ‘responsible consumerism’ won’t do much to help it, other than assuage our own anxiety-guilt. (Not to say we shouldn’t do every little thing we can.)

THE TOWER

They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy.

Red Sam, who owns and runs the place, complains with The Grandmother that the world is going to wreck and ruin. The title of the story is a quote from Red Sam. The Grandmother and Red Sam are of the same generation. These are characters who would’ve lived through America’s depression, so it’s interesting they see 1950s America — an era still romanticised — as a downgrade on that. What, exactly, has been downgraded to them? Do they perhaps look back fondly on a time when slavery was legal? Are they able to put that into words, or would acknowledging it create uncomfortable dissonance with their own self image as ‘good people’?

THE PLANTATION HOUSE OUTSIDE TOOMSBORO

In slightly earlier times this is a plantation that would’ve been run by Black slaves. But this is not what the grandmother remembers:

the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. … the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall

The present scenery:

The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them. … The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.

This feels like a Hotel California situation. That final sentence leads me to wonder: Are they are going to make it out? Sure enough, this dangerous description of a road foreshadows the accident:

The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. … Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.

The woods are of course a trope from long ago, often a symbol for the subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

Flannery O’Connor’s characters are often described as grotesque, which has a specific meaning in literature:

Nowadays, when people talk about “the grotesque,” their meaning is closer to its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” The grotesque in literature focuses on the human body, and all the ways that it can be distorted or exaggerated: its aim is to simultaneously elicit our empathy and disgust. Very much like the uncanny, the grotesque draws its power from the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the familiar distorted. Gothic fiction often has elements of the grotesque, such as Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the off-kilter characters in Flannery O’Conner’s stories. In its earlier iterations, the term “grotesque” was used in a way that overlapped more with “the uncanny,” referring to works that blurred the line between the real and the fantastic, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the human protagonist is transformed into an insect. It is interesting to see the ways in which these terms overlap, and it’s important to note that their exact “definitions” can be hard to nail down because of the way they have changed over time.

The Masters Review Blog
THE FAMILY ON THE ROAD TRIP

The Grandmother — Has connections in Tennessee. Does not want to go to Florida because she has heard there’s a criminal on the loose. She is inclined to worry unnecessarily without being able to process probabilities and likelihood. For instance, she won’t leave the cat at home in case he brushes against the knob of the gas burner and asphyxiates himself. (Has this ever happened in the history of the world?) The Grandmother is therefore revealed to be a fantasist as well as a worrier. And this is why I interpret this plot as a metaphor or as a dream, probably endured by The Grandmother as she nodded off in the backseat, rather than as ‘real’ within the world of the story. (Not that it really matters whether the car wreck and the hearse really turned up or not — this doesn’t change any of the themes in the story.)

Bailey — The Grandmother’s son. She lives with him and his family. He doesn’t have much fun in him, but he is wearing bright blue parrots all over his shirt, as if to convince himself he’s going on holiday. This reminds me of the scene in Office Space, where the boss tells his staff to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday, if they like, because it will be fun. (The staff don’t look like it will be fun — Hawaiian shirts will only remind them of how un-fun it is to be stuck in a cubicle.) Within the world of this story, the brightness of the shirt is equally ironic — it is the shirt he is wearing as he’s marched off for execution.

Bailey’s wife — ‘a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage’. We don’t know much else about her, except her grim acceptance of her own fate, much like Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men.

The Baby — sits in the front seat on its mother’s lap, which gives me anxiety. I grew up with a TV advertisement which showed a baby flying through a windscreen, and the devastated, slow-mo aftermath. (It’s amazing what we kids weren’t allowed to watch compared to the trauma we was exposed to during regular TV shows, including the shows aimed at kids.)

June Star — the granddaughter, blonde hair. Sassy. Funny. Cheeky.

John Wesley — the grandson, 8 years old, stocky with glasses. ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’ This is according to the God-like (Devil-like?) killer, so I take it as a fairly accurate assessment of his character.

Pitty Sing — the cat. The Grandmother hides the cat in the car. Eventually the cat will reveal itself, angering Bailey, foreshadowing death. This cat turns The Grandmother into a bit of a witch archetype — the sort of witch who can divine the future.

THE BADDIES

The Misfit — has broken out of the Federal Penitentiary and is apparently headed towards Florida. Strong white teeth. Menacing. Like a character out of a Western, he wears a black hat. Has ditched his clothes and is not wearing a shirt. This tends to make a criminal look more confident. (I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon’s character in The River Wild.) He wears no armour at all, because he is confident he doesn’t need it. When he recounts all the things he has seen he is older than I first imagined. Wears glasses. ‘Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.’

Bobby Lee — one of the men in the black hearse

Hiram — one of the men in the black hearse, the one who seems to know the most about engines.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

SHORTCOMING

The Grandmother is the character we know the most about. Her reactions are described in the most detail. She worries (needlessly) but eventually the very thing she worries about most comes true within the world of the story. So if we read this story at its most literal level, she doesn’t worry needlessly, on this particular occasion.

What gets her into this mess is that she has misremembered some roads from long ago. But if we take a fatalistic view of the story, it wouldn’t have mattered which roads they took — bad would’ve come for them wherever they were. And when I say ‘bad’, I mean death. The black hearse, of course, is an old woman facing her own impending death. Perhaps, metaphorically, the old woman dies on this trip (but in a much less melodramatic way).

Right to the end, The Grandmother has a black and white view of Good and Evil. She believes she is good — she is good because she looks nice; she is good because she comes from a good family (as if lineage is the thing). She thinks that these things will save her.

DESIRE

She doesn’t want to go on holiday but she doesn’t want to stay home, either. She wants to feel as safe as she can, wherever she happens to be, and to remain a member of the Good Gang.

OPPONENT

The Misfit and co come along to prove that the very thing she’s most worried about will come to fruition.

PLAN

After the car rolls, the family plan to wait for someone to pass by and pick them up.

When The Grandmother realises they’re in great danger she tries appealing to God and offering money. Finally she tries to persuade The Misfit that they are all related somehow, in the scheme of things — appealing to his humanity (or perhaps she’s genuinely addled because The Misfit is wearing her dead son’s ironically loud-print shirt).

BIG STRUGGLE

The scene where The Misfit turns up and shoots the adults is the Battle scene. Murder happens ostensibly because the grandmother recognises who he is and tells him she knows. There’s a chance they all would’ve left with their lives, otherwise. Or would they?

ANAGNORISIS

Did the grandmother learn anything about life before she died? She probably came to the conclusion that life contains the evil she always imagined it did — she’s been vindicated.

But she starts off quite hopeful — so long as she behaves correctly, going through the correct rituals in life, everything will turn out fine. By the end of the story all hope has been quashed, in the face of outright sociopathy, though The Grandmother never gives up, in contrast to her resigned daughter-in-law.

The reader’s revelation? Well, my takeaway point is that bad things happen to anyone, and sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some churches teach that so long as you do everything right, your life and afterlife will be excellent. This idea poses a serious dilemma for any free-thinking person — what to make of very unfortunate individuals? To me, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a critique on the idea that it’s possible to divide humanity into heaven-bound and hell-bound individuals.

NEW SITUATION

The family are dead and the baddies keep going wherever they’re going to. The Misfit has a Zen  outlook on life — he doesn’t remember what crimes put him in jail. It’s likely he’ll end up back in jail and won’t care to remember the reason. He’s almost a supernatural creature rather than a real one — an earthly Grim Reaper.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Annie Proulx’s short story “A Run Of Bad Luck“, because the way in which the reader is asked to consider fate.

Alice Munro’s re-visioning, “Save The Reaper“.

Slate’s Audiobook Special (The Flannery O’Connor part starts at 22:20)

Review by Bluestalking

Flannery O’Connor to Lit Professor: “My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnoxious. I’m in a State of Shock” from Open Culture

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header photo by Matt Howard