About the Author

Alice Munro

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published ten previous books-Dance of the Happy Shades; Lives Of Girls And Women; Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You; Who Do You Think You Are?; The Moons Of Jupiter; The Progress Of Love; Friend of My Youth; Open Secrets; The Love of a Good Woman; and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage-as well as Selected Stories, an anthology of stories culled from her dazzling body of work.

During her distinguished career, Munro has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the W.H. Smith Award in the United Kingdom and, in the United States, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Lannan Literary Award, and the Rea Award for the Short Story.

In Canada, her prize-winning record is so extraordinary-three Governor General's Awards, two Giller Prizes (one of which was for Runaway), the Trillium Book Award, the Jubilee Prize, and the Libris Award, among many others-that it has been ironically suggested that as such a perennial winner, she no longer qualifies for new prizes. Abroad, acclaim continues to pour in. Both Runaway and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best Book Award, Caribbean and Canada region, and were chosen as one of the Books of the Year by The New York Times.

Alice Munro's stories appear regularly in The New Yorker, as well as in The Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Night, and The Paris Review. She and her husband divide their time between Clinton (in “Alice Munro country”), Ontario, and Comox, British Columbia.

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Books by this Author
Alice Munro's Best

From “Differently”

Georgia got a part-time job in a bookstore, working several evenings a week. Ben went away on his yearly cruise. The summer turned out to be unusually hot and sunny for the West Coast. Georgia combed her hair out and stopped using most of her makeup and bought a couple of short halter dresses. Sitting on her stool at the front of the store, showing her bare brown shoulders and sturdy brown legs, she looked like a college girl — clever but full of energy and bold opinions. The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl — a woman — like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for somebody to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. Maya came to visit and lurked about in the background, amused and envious.

“You know what you’ve got?” she said to Georgia. “You’ve got a salon! Oh, I’d like to have a job like that! I’d even like an ordinary job in an ordinary store, where you fold things up and find things for people and make change and say thank you very much, and colder out today, will it rain?”

“You could get a job like that,” said Georgia.

“No, I couldn’t. I don’t have the discipline. I was too badly brought up. I can’t even keep house without Mrs. Hanna and Mrs. Cheng and Sadie.”

It was true. Maya had a lot of servants, for a modern woman, though they came at different times and did separate things and were nothing like an old-fashioned household staff. Even the food at her dinner parties, which seemed to show her own indifferent touch, had been prepared by someone else.

Usually, Maya was busy in the evenings. Georgia was just as glad, because she didn’t really want Maya coming into the store, asking for crazy titles that she had made up, making Georgia’s employment there a kind of joke. Georgia took the store seriously. She had a serious, secret liking for it that she could not explain. It was a long, narrow store with an old-fashioned funnelled entryway between two angled display windows. From her stool behind the desk Georgia was able to see the reflections in one window reflected in the other. This street was not one of those decked out to receive tourists. It was a wide east-west street filled in the early evening with a faintly yellow light, a light reflected off pale stucco buildings that were not very high, plain storefronts, nearly empty sidewalks. Georgia found this plainness liberating after the winding shady streets, the flowery yards and vine-framed windows of Oak Bay. Here the books could come into their own, as they never could in a more artful and enticing suburban bookshop. Straight long rows of paperbacks. (Most of the Penguins then still had their orange-and-white or blue-and-white covers, with no designs or pictures, just the unadorned, unexplained titles.) The store was a straight avenue of bounty, of plausible promises. Certain books that Georgia had never read, and probably never would read, were important to her, because of the stateliness or mystery of their titles. In Praise of Folly. The Roots of Coincidence. The Flowering of New England. Ideas and Integrities.
Sometimes she got up and put the books in stricter order. The fiction was shelved alphabetically, by author, which was sensible but not very interesting. The history books, however, and the philosophy and psychology and other science books were arranged according to certain intricate and delightful rules — having to do with chronology and content — that Georgia grasped immediately and even elaborated on. She did not need to read much of a book to know about it. She got a sense of it easily, almost at once, as if by smell.

At times the store was empty, and she felt an abundant calm. It was not even the books that mattered then. She sat on the stool and watched the street — patient, expectant, by herself, in a finely balanced and suspended state.

She saw Miles’ reflection — his helmeted ghost parking his motorcycle at the curb — before she saw him. She believed that she had noted his valiant profile, his pallor, his dusty red hair (he took off his helmet and shook out his hair before coming into the store), and his quick, slouching, insolent, invading way of moving, even in the glass.

It was no surprise that he soon began to talk to her, as others did. He told her that he was a diver. He looked for wrecks, and lost airplanes, and dead bodies. He had been hired by a rich couple in Victoria who were planning a treasure-hunting cruise, getting it together at the moment. Their names, the destination were all secrets. Treasure-hunting was a lunatic business. He had done it before. His home was in Seattle, where he had a wife and a little daughter.

Everything he told her could easily have been a lie.

He showed her pictures in books — photographs and drawings, of mollusks, jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war, sargasso weed, the Caribbean flying fish, the girdle of Venus. He pointed out which pictures were accurate, which were fakes. Then he went away and paid no more attention to her, even slipping out of the store while she was busy with a customer. Not a hint of a goodbye. But he came in another evening, and told her about a drowned man wedged into the cabin of a boat, looking out the watery window in an interested way. By attention and avoidance, impersonal conversations in close proximity, by his oblivious prowling, and unsmiling, lengthy, gray-eyed looks, he soon had Georgia in a disturbed and not disagreeable state. He stayed away two nights in a row, then came in and asked her, abruptly, if she would like a ride home on his motorcycle.

Georgia said yes. She had never ridden on a motorcycle in her life. Her car was in the parking lot; she knew what was bound to happen.

She told him where she lived. “Just a few blocks up from the beach,” she said.

“We’ll go to the beach, then. We’ll go and sit on the logs.”

That was what they did. They sat for a while on the logs. Then, though the beach was not quite dark or completely deserted, they made love in the imperfect shelter of some broom bushes. Georgia walked home, a strengthened and lightened woman, not in the least in love, favored by the universe.

“My car wouldn’t start,” she told the baby-sitter, a grandmother from down the street. “I walked all the way home. It was lovely, walking. Lovely. I enjoyed it so much.”

Her hair was wild, her lips were swollen, her clothes were full of sand.

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Friend Of My Youth

Friend Of My Youth

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Moons of Jupiter

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From the story "Tricks"
For five years Robin had been doing this. One play every summer. It had started when she was living in Stratford, training to be a nurse. She went with a fellow student who had a couple of free tickets from her aunt, who worked on costumes. The girl who had the tickets was bored sick–it was King Lear–so Robin had kept quiet about how she felt. She could not have expressed it anyway–she would rather have gone away from the theater alone, and not had to talk to anybody for at least twenty-four hours. Her mind was made up then to come back. And to come by herself.

It wouldn’t be difficult. The town where she had grown up, and where, later, she had to find her work because of Joanne, was only thirty miles away. People there knew that the Shakespeare plays were being put on in Stratford, but Robin had never heard of anybody going to see one. People like Willard were afraid of being looked down on by the people in the audience, as well as having the problem of not following the language. And people like Joanne were sure that nobody, ever, could really like Shakespeare, and so if anybody from here went, it was because they wanted to mix with the higher-ups, who were not enjoying it themselves but only letting on they were. Those few people in town who made a habit of seeing stage productions preferred to go to Toronto, to the Royal Alex, when a Broadway musical was on tour.

Robin liked to have a good seat, so she could only afford a Saturday matinee. She picked a play that was being done on one of her weekends off from the hospital. She never read it beforehand, and she didn’t care whether it was a tragedy or a comedy. She had yet to see a single person there that she knew, in the theater or out on the streets, and that suited her very well. One of the nurses she worked with had said to her, “I’d never have the nerve to do that all on my own,” and that had made Robin realize how different she herself must be from most people. She never felt more at ease than at these times, surrounded by strangers. After the play she would walk downtown, along the river, and find some inexpensive place to eat–usually a sandwich, as she sat on a stool at the counter. And at twenty to eight she would catch the train home. That was all. Yet those few hours filled her with an assurance that the life she was going back to, which seemed so makeshift and unsatisfactory, was only temporary and could easily be put up with. And there was a radiance behind it, behind that life, behind everything, expressed by the sunlight seen through the train windows. The sunlight and long shadows on the summer fields, like the remains of the play in her head.

Last year, she saw Antony and Cleopatra. When it was over she walked along the river, and noticed that there was a black swan–the first she had ever seen–a subtle intruder gliding and feeding at a short distance from the white ones. Perhaps it was the glisten of the white swans’ wings that made her think of eating at a real restaurant this time, not at a counter. White tablecloth, a few fresh flowers, a glass of wine, and something unusual to eat, like mussels, or Cornish hen. She made a move to check in her purse, to see how much money she had.

And her purse was not there. The seldom-used little paisley- cloth bag on its silver chain was not slung over her shoulder as usual, it was gone. She had walked alone nearly all the way downtown from the theater without noticing that it was gone. And of course her dress had no pockets. She had no return ticket, no lipstick, no comb, and no money. Not a dime.

She remembered that throughout the play she had held the purse on her lap, under her program. She did not have the program now, either. Perhaps both had slipped to the floor? But no–she remembered having the bag in the toilet cubicle of the Ladies Room. She had hung it by the chain on the hook that was on the back of the door. But she had not left it there. No. She had looked at herself in the mirror over the washbasin, she had got the comb out to fiddle with her hair. Her hair was dark, and fine, and though she visualized it puffed up like Jackie Kennedy’s, and did it up in rollers at night, it had a tendency to go flat. Otherwise she had been pleased with what she saw. She had greenish-gray eyes and black eyebrows and a skin that tanned whether she tried or not, and all this was set off well by her tight-waisted, full-skirted dress of avocado-green polished cotton, with the rows of little tucks around the hips.

That was where she had left it. On the counter by the washbasin. Admiring herself, turning and looking over her shoulder to catch sight of the V of the dress at the back–she believed she had a pretty back–and checking that there was no bra strap showing anywhere.

And on a tide of vanity, of silly gratification, she had sallied out of the Ladies Room, leaving the purse behind.

She climbed the bank to the street and started back to the theater by the straightest route. She walked as fast as she could. There was no shade along the street, and there was busy traffic, in the heat of the late afternoon. She was almost running. That caused the sweat to leak out from under the shields in her dress. She trekked across the baking parking lot–now empty–and up the hill. No more shade up there, and nobody in sight around the theater building.

But it was not locked. In the empty lobby she stood a moment to get her sight back after the outdoor glare. She could feel her heart thumping, and the drops of moisture popping out on her upper lip. The ticket booths were closed, and so was the refreshment counter. The inner theater doors were locked. She took the stairway down to the washroom, her shoes clattering on the marble steps.

Let it be open, let it be open, let it be there.

No. There was nothing on the smooth veined counter, nothing in the wastebaskets, nothing on any hook on the back of any door.

A man was mopping the floor of the lobby when she came upstairs. He told her that it might have been turned in to the Lost and Found, but the Lost and Found was locked. With some reluctance he left his mopping and led her down another stairs to a cubbyhole containing several umbrellas, parcels, and even jackets and hats and a disgusting-looking brownish fox scarf. But no paisley-cloth shoulder purse.

“No luck,” he said.

“Could it be under my seat?” she begged, though she was sure it could not be.

“Already been swept in there.”

There was nothing for her to do then but climb the stairs, walk through the lobby, and go out onto the street.

She walked in the other direction from the parking lot, seeking shade. She could imagine Joanne saying that the cleaning man had already stashed her purse away to take home to his wife or his daughter, that is what they were like in a place like this. She looked for a bench or a low wall to sit down on while she figured things out. She didn’t see such a thing anywhere.

A large dog came up behind her and knocked against her as it passed. It was a dark-brown dog, with long legs and an arrogant, stubborn expression.

“Juno. Juno,” a man called. “Watch where you’re going.

“She is just young and rude,” he said to Robin. “She thinks she owns the sidewalk. She’s not vicious. Were you afraid?”

Robin said, “No.” The loss of her purse had preoccupied her and she had not thought of an attack from a dog being piled on top of that.

“When people see a Doberman they are often frightened. Dobermans have a reputation to be fierce, and she is trained to be fierce when she’s a watchdog, but not when she’s walking.”

Robin hardly knew one breed of dog from another. Because of Joanne’s asthma, they never had dogs or cats around the house.

“It’s all right,” she said.

Instead of going ahead to where the dog Juno was waiting, her owner called her back. He fixed the leash he was carrying onto her collar.

“I let her loose down on the grass. Down below the theater. She likes that. But she ought to be on the leash up here. I was lazy. Are you ill?”

Robin did not even feel surprised at this change in the conversation’s direction. She said, “I lost my purse. It was my own fault. I left it by the washbasin in the Ladies Room at the theater and I went back to look but it was gone. I just walked away and left it there after the play.”

“What play was it today?”

“Antony and Cleopatra,” she said. “My money was in it and my train ticket home.”

“You came on the train? To see Antony and Cleopatra?”


She remembered the advice their mother had given to her and to Joanne about travelling on the train, or travelling anywhere. Always have a couple of bills folded and pinned to your underwear. Also, don’t get into a conversation with a strange man.

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The Love of a Good Woman

Kath and Sonje have a place of their own on the beach, behind  some large logs. They have chosen this not only for shelter from the  occasional sharp wind--they've got Kath's baby with them--but  because they want to be out of sight of a group of women who use  the beach every day. They call these women the Monicas.

The Monicas have two or three or four children apiece. They  are all under the leadership of the real Monica, who walked down  the beach and introduced herself when she first spotted Kath and  Sonje and the baby. She invited them to join the gang.

They followed her, lugging the carry-cot between them. What  else could they do? But since then they lurk behind the logs.

The Monicas' encampment is made up of beach umbrellas,  towels, diaper bags, picnic hampers, inflatable rafts and whales,  toys, lotions, extra clothing, sun hats, Thermos bottles of coffee,  paper cups and plates, and Thermos tubs in which they carry  homemade fruit-juice Popsicles.

They are either frankly pregnant or look as if they might  be pregnant, because they have lost their figures. They  trudge down to the water's edge, hollering out the  names of their children who are riding and falling off logs or the  inflatable whales.

"Where's your hat? Where's your ball? You've been on that  thing long enough now, let Sandy have a turn."

Even when they talk to each other their voices have to be raised  high, over the shouts and squalls of their children.

"You can get ground round as cheap as hamburger if you go to  Woodward's."

"I tried zinc ointment but it didn't work."

"Now he's got an abscess in the groin."

"You can't use baking powder, you have to use soda."

These women aren't so much older than Kath and Sonje. But  they've reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn  the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out  progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the  bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus  trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath  feels their threat particularly, since she's a mother now herself.  When she nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes  smokes a cigarette, so as not to sink into a sludge of animal  function. And she's nursing so that she can shrink her uterus and  flatten her stomach, not just provide the baby--Noelle--with  precious maternal antibodies.

Kath and Sonje have their own Thermos of coffee and their  extra towels, with which they've rigged up a shelter for Noelle.  They have their cigarettes and their books. Sonje has a book  by Howard Fast. Her husband has told her that if she has to read  fiction that's who she should be reading. Kath is reading the short  stories of Katherine Mansfield and the short stories of D. H. Lawrence.  Sonje has got into the habit of putting down her own book and picking  up whichever book of Kath's that Kath is not reading at the moment.  She limits herself to one story and then goes back to Howard Fast.

When they get hungry one of them makes the trek up a long  flight of wooden steps. Houses ring this cove, up on the rocks  under the pine and cedar trees. They are all former summer  cottages, from the days before the Lions Gate Bridge was built,  when people from Vancouver would come across the water for  their vacations. Some cottages--like Kath's and Sonje's--are still  quite primitive and cheap to rent. Others, like the real Monica's,  are much improved. But nobody intends to stay here; everybody's  planning to move on to a proper house. Except for Sonje and her  husband, whose plans seem more mysterious than anybody else's.

There is an unpaved crescent road serving the houses, and  joined at either end to Marine Drive. The enclosed semicircle is full  of tall trees and an undergrowth of ferns and salmonberry bushes,  and various intersecting paths, by which you can take a shortcut  out to the store on Marine Drive. At the store Kath and Sonje will  buy takeout French fries for lunch. More often it's Kath who  makes this expedition, because it's a treat for her to walk under the  trees--something she can't do anymore with the baby carriage.  When she first came here to live, before Noelle was born, she  would cut through the trees nearly every day, never thinking of her  freedom. One day she met Sonje. They had both worked at the  Vancouver Public Library a little while before this, though they had  not been in the same department and had never talked to each  other. Kath had quit in the sixth month of pregnancy as you were  required to do, lest the sight of you should disturb the patrons, and  Sonje had quit because of a scandal.

Or, at least, because of a story that had got into the newspapers.  Her husband, Cottar, who was a journalist working for a magazine  that Kath had never heard of, had made a trip to Red China.  He was referred to in the paper as a left-wing writer. Sonje's picture  appeared beside his, along with the information that she worked in the library. There was concern that in her job she might be promoting  Communist books and influencing children who used the library, so  that they might become Communists. Nobody said that she had done  this--just that it was a danger. Nor was it against the law for somebody  from Canada to visit China. But it turned out that Cottar and Sonje were  both Americans, which made their behavior more alarming, perhaps  more purposeful.

"I know that girl," Kath had said to her husband, Kent, when  she saw Sonje's picture. "At least I know her to see her. She  always seems kind of shy. She'll be embarrassed about this."

"No she won't," said Kent. "Those types love to feel  persecuted, it's what they live for."

The head librarian was reported as saying that Sonje had  nothing to do with choosing books or influencing young  people--she spent most of her time typing out lists.

"Which was funny," Sonje said to Kath, after they had  recognized each other, and spoken and spent about half an hour  talking on the path. The funny thing was that she did not know how  to type.

She wasn't fired, but she had quit anyway. She thought she  might as well, because she and Cottar had some changes  coming up in their future.

Kath wondered if one change might be a baby. It seemed to her  that life went on, after you finished school, as a series of further  examinations to be passed. The first one was getting married. If  you hadn't done that by the time you were twenty-five, that  examination had to all intents and purposes been failed. (She  always signed her name "Mrs. Kent Mayberry" with a sense of  relief and mild elation.) Then you thought about having the first  baby. Waiting a year before you got pregnant was a good idea.  Waiting two years was a little more prudent than necessary. And  three years started people wondering. Then down the road  somewhere was the second baby. After that the progression got  dimmer and it was hard to be sure just when you had arrived at  wherever it was you were going.

Sonje was not the sort of friend who would tell you that she was trying to have a baby and how long she'd been trying and what techniques she was using. She never talked about sex in that way, or about her periods or any behavior of her body--though she soon told Kath things that most people would consider much more shocking. She had a graceful dignity--she had wanted to be a ballet dancer until she got too tall, and she didn't stop regretting that until she met Cottar, who said, "Oh, another little bourgeois girl hoping she'll turn into a dying swan." Her face was broad, calm, pink skinned--she never wore any makeup, Cottar was against makeup--and her thick fair hair was pinned up in a bushy chignon. Kath thought she was wonderful looking--both seraphic and intelligent.

Eating their French fries on the beach, Kath and Sonje discuss characters in the stories they've been reading. How is it that no woman could love Stanley Burnell? What is it about Stanley? He is such a boy, with his pushy love, his greed at the table, his self-satisfaction. Whereas Jonathan Trout--oh, Stanley's wife, Linda, should have married Jonathan Trout, Jonathan who glided through the water while Stanley splashed and snorted. "Greetings, my celestial peach blossom," says Jonathan in his velvety bass voice. He is full of irony, he is subtle and weary. "The shortness of life, the shortness of life," he says. And Stanley's brash world crumbles, discredited.

Something bothers Kath. She can't mention it or think about it. Is Kent something like Stanley?

One day they have an argument. Kath and Sonje have an unexpected and disturbing argument about a story by D. H. Lawrence. The story is called "The Fox."

At the end of that story the lovers--a soldier and a woman named March--are sitting on the sea cliffs looking out on the Atlantic, towards their future home in Canada. They are going to leave England, to start a new life. They are committed to each other, but they are not truly happy. Not yet.

The soldier knows that they will not be truly happy until the woman gives her life over to him, in a way that she has not done so far. March is still struggling against him, to hold herself separate from him, she is making them both obscurely miserable by her efforts to hang on to her woman's soul, her woman's mind. She must stop this--she must stop thinking and stop wanting and let her consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his. Like the reeds that wave below the surface of the water. Look down, look down--see how the reeds wave in the water, they are alive but they never break the surface. And that is how her female nature must live within his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be strong and content. Then they will have achieved a true marriage.

Kath says that she thinks this is stupid.

She begins to make her case. "He's talking about sex, right?"

"Not just," says Sonje. "About their whole life."

"Yes, but sex. Sex leads to getting pregnant. I mean in the normal course of events. So March has a baby. She probably has more than one. And she has to look after them. How can you do that if your mind is waving around under the surface of the sea?"

"That's taking it very literally," says Sonje in a slightly superior tone.

"You can either have thoughts and make decisions or you can't," says Kath. "For instance--the baby is going to pick up a razor blade. What do you do? Do you just say, Oh, I think I'll just float around here till my husband comes home and he can make up his mind, that is our mind, about whether this is a good idea?"

Sonje said, "That's taking it to extremes."

Each of their voices has hardened. Kath is brisk and scornful, Sonje grave and stubborn.

"Lawrence didn't want to have children," Kath says. "He was jealous of the ones Frieda had from being married before."

Sonje is looking down between her knees, letting sand fall through her fingers. "I just think it would be beautiful," she says. "I think it would be beautiful, if a woman could."

Kath knows that something has gone wrong. Something is wrong with her own argument. Why is she so angry and excited? And why did she shift over to talking about babies, about children? Because she has a baby and Sonje doesn't? Did she say that about Lawrence and Frieda because she suspects that it is partly the same story with Cottar and Sonje?

When you make the argument on the basis of the children, about the woman having to look after the children, you're in the clear. You can't be blamed. But when Kath does that she is covering up. She can't stand that part about the reeds and the water, she feels bloated and suffocated with incoherent protest. So it is herself she is thinking of, not of any children. She herself is the very woman that Lawrence is railing about. And she can't reveal that straight out because it might make Sonje suspect--it might make Kath herself suspect--an impoverishment in Kath's life.

Sonje who has said, during another alarming conversation, "My happiness depends on Cottar."

My happiness depends on Cottar.

That statement shook Kath. She would never have said it about Kent. She didn't want it to be true of herself.

But she didn't want Sonje to think that she was a woman who had missed out on love. Who had not considered, who had not been offered, the prostration of love.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The View From Castle Rock


About ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family, whose name was Laidlaw. There was a good deal of information lying around about them – really an unusual amount, considering that they were obscure and not prosperous, and living in the Ettrick Valley, which the Statistical Account of Scotland (1799) describes as having no advantages. I lived in Scotland for a few months, close to the Ettrick Valley, so I was able to find their names in the local histories in the Selkirk and Galashiels Public Libraries, and to find out what James Hogg had to say about them in Blackwoods Magazine. Hogg’s mother was a Laidlaw, and he took Walter Scott to see her when Scott was collecting ballads for The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. (She supplied some, though she later took offense at their being printed.) And I was lucky, in that every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections. Scotland was the country, remember, where John Knox had decided that every child should learn to read and write, in some sort of village school, so that everybody could read the Bible.

It didn’t stop there.

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.

During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted to with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

These are stories.
You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.

From “Illinois”
A letter from his brothers reached William Laidlaw in the Highlands sometime early in the eighteen-thirties. They complained of not hearing from him for three years, and told him that his father was dead. It did not take him very long, once he was sure of that, to start making his plans to go to America. He asked for and was given a letter of reference from his employer, Colonel Munro (perhaps one of the many Highland landowners who had made sure of profitable sheep-rearing by hiring Borders men as their factors). He waited until Mary’s fourth baby boy was born – this was my great-grandfather Thomas – and then he bundled up his family and set out. His father and his brothers had spoken of going to America, but when they said that, it was really Canada they meant. William spoke accurately. He had discarded the Ettrick Valley for the Highlands without the least regret, and now he was ready to get out from under the British flag altogether–he was bound for Illinois.

They settled in Joliet, near Chicago.

There in Joliet, on the 5th of January, in either 1839 or 1840, William died of cholera, and Mary gave birth to a girl. All on the one day.

She wrote to the brothers in Ontario – what else could she do? – and in the late spring when the roads were dry and the crops were planted Andrew arrived with a team of oxen and a cart, to carry her and her children and their goods back to Esquesing.

“Where is the tin box?” said Mary. “I saw it last thing before I went to bed. Is it in the cart already?”
Andrew said that it was not. He had just come back from loading the two rolls of bedding, wrapped up in canvas.

“Becky?” said Mary sharply. Becky Johnson was right there, rocking back and forth on a wooden stool with the baby in her arms, so surely she might have spoken if she knew the whereabouts of the box. But she was in a sulky mood, she had said barely a word that morning. And now she did nothing but shake her head slightly, as if the box and the packing and loading and the departure, which was close at hand, meant nothing to her.

“Does she understand?” said Andrew. Becky was half Indian and he had taken her for a servant, till Mary explained that she was a neighbor.

“We’ve got them too,” he said, speaking as if Becky had no ears in her head. “But we don’t have them coming in and sitting down in the house like that.”

“She has been more help to me than anybody,” Mary said, trying to shush him. “Her father was a white man.”

“Well,” said Andrew, as if to say there were two ways of looking at that.

Mary said, “I can’t think how it would disappear from in front of my eyes.”

She turned away from her brother-in-law to the son who was her chief comfort.

“Johnnie, did you happen to see the black tin box?”

Johnnie was sitting on the lower bunk, now bare of bedclothes, keeping a watch over his younger brothers Robbie and Tommy, as his mother had asked him to. He had invented a game of dropping a spoon between the slats onto the plank floor, and having them see who could pick it up first. Naturally Robbie always won, even though Johnnie had asked him to slow down and give his smaller brother a chance. Tommy was in such a state of excitement that he did not seem to mind. He was used to this situation anyway, as the youngest.

Johnnie shook his head, preoccupied. Mary expected no more than that. But in a moment he spoke, as if just recollecting her question.

“Jamie’s setting on it. Out in the yard.”

Not only sitting on it, Mary saw when she hurried out, but he had covered it with his father’s coat, the coat Will had been married in. He must have got that out of the clothes trunk that was already in the cart.

“What are you doing?” cried Mary, as if she couldn’t see. “You’re not supposed to touch that box. What are you doing with your father’s coat after I packed it up? I ought to smack you.”

She was aware that Andrew was watching, and likely thinking that was a poor enough reprimand. He had asked Jamie to help him load the trunk and Jamie had done so, reluctantly, but then he had slipped away, instead of hanging around to see what more he could help with. And yesterday, when Andrew first arrived, the boy had pretended not to know who he was. “There’s a man out in the road with a cart and an ox team,” he had said to his mother, as if no such thing was expected and was of no concern to him.

Andrew had asked her if the lad was all right. All right in the head, was what he meant.

“His father’s dying was a hard matter for him,” she said.

Andrew said, “Aye,” but added that there’d been time to get over it, by now.

The box was locked. Mary had the key to it around her neck. She wondered if Jamie had meant to get into it, not knowing that. She was ready to weep.

“Put the coat back in the trunk,” was all she could say.

In the box were Will’s pistol and such papers as Andrew needed concerning the house and land, and the letter Colonel Munro had written before they left Scotland, and another letter, that Mary herself had sent to Will, before they were married. It was in reply to one from him – the first word she’d had since he left Ettrick, years before. He said in it that he remembered her well and had thought that by now he would have heard of her wedding. She had replied that in such case she would have sent him an invitation.

“Soon I will be like the old almanacks left on the shelf, that no person will buy,” she wrote. (But to her shame, when he showed her this letter long afterwards, she saw that she had spelled “buy” by. Living with him, having books and journals around, had done a power of good for her spelling.)
It was true that she was in her twenty-fifth year when she wrote that, but she was still confident of her looks. No woman who thought herself lacking in that way would have dared such a comparison. And she had finished off by inviting him, as plain as any words could do it. If you should come courting me, she had said, if you should come courting me some moonlight night, I think that you should be preferred before any.
What a chance to take, she said when he showed her that. Did I have no pride?

Nor I, he said.

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Too Much Happiness

Wenlock Edge
My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts. He was a tall, florid man with a good-natured expression, a big square face, and fair curly hair springing straight up from his forehead. His hands, his fingernails, were as clean as soap, and his hips were a little plump. My name for him—when he was not around—was Earnest Bottom. I had a mean tongue.
But I believed I meant no harm. Hardly any harm. After Aunt Nell Botts died he did not come anymore but sent a Christmas card.
When I went to university in London—that is in London, Ontario—where he lived, he started a custom of taking me out to dinner every other Sunday evening. It seemed to me that this was the sort of thing he would do, because I was a relative—he would not even have to consider whether we were suited to spending time together. He always took me to the same place, a restaurant called the Old Chelsea, which was upstairs, looking down on Dundas Street. It had velvet curtains, white tablecloths, little rose-shaded lamps on the tables. It probably cost more than he could afford, but I did not think of that, having a country girl's notion that all men who lived in cities, wore a suit every day, and sported such clean fingernails had reached a level of prosperity where indulgences like this were the usual thing.
I had the most exotic offering on the menu, such as chicken vol au vent or duck à l'orange, while he always ate roast beef. Desserts were wheeled up to the table on a dinner wagon. There was usually a tall coconut cake, custard tarts topped with out-of-season strawberries, chocolate-coated pastry horns full of whipped cream. I took a long time to decide, like a five-year-old with flavours of ice cream, and then on Monday I had to fast all day, to make up for such gorging.
Ernie looked a little too young to be my father. I hoped that nobody from the university would see us and think he was my boyfriend.
He inquired about my courses, and nodded seriously when I told him, or reminded him, that I was in Honours English and Philosophy. He didn't roll up his eyes at the information, the way people at home did. He told me that he had a great respect for education and regretted that he did not have the means to continue his own after high school. Instead, he had got a job working for the Canadian National railways, as a ticket salesman. Now he was a supervisor.
He liked serious reading, but it was not a substitute for a university education.
I was pretty sure that his idea of serious reading would be the Condensed Books of the Reader's Digest, and to get him off the subject of my studies I told him about my rooming house. In those days the college had no dormitories—we all lived in rooming houses or cheap apartments or fraternity or sorority houses. My room was the attic of an old house, with a large floor space and not much headroom. But being the former maid's quarters, it had its own bathroom. On the second floor were the rooms occupied by two other scholarship students, who were in their final year in Modern Languages. Their names were Kay and Beverly. In the high-ceilinged but chopped-up rooms downstairs lived a medical student, who was hardly ever home, and his wife, Beth, who was home all the time, because she had two very young children. Beth was the house manager and rent collector, and there was often a feud going on between her and the second-floor girls about how they washed their clothes in the bathroom and hung them there to dry. When the medical student was home he sometimes had to use that bathroom because of the baby stuff in the one downstairs, and Beth said he shouldn't have to cope with stockings in his face and a bunch of intimate doodads. Kay and Beverly retorted that use of their own bathroom had been promised when they moved in.
This was the sort of thing I chose to tell to Ernie, who flushed and said that they should have got it in writing.
Kay and Beverly were a disappointment to me. They worked hard at Modern Languages, but their conversation and preoccupations seemed hardly different from those of girls who might work in banks or offices. They did their hair up in pin curls and painted their fingernails on Saturdays, because that was the night they had dates with their boyfriends. On Sundays they had to soothe their faces with lotion because of the whisker-burns the boyfriends had inflicted on them. I didn't find either boyfriend in the least desirable, and I wondered how they could.
They said that they had once had some crazy idea of being translators at the United Nations, but now they figured they would teach high school, and with any luck get married.
They gave me unwelcome advice.
I had got a job in the college cafeteria. I pushed a cart around collecting dirty dishes off the tables and wiped the tables clean when they were empty. And I set out food to be picked up from the shelves.
They said that this job was not a good idea.
"Boys won't ask you out if they see you at a job like that."
I told Ernie this, and he said, "So, what did you say?"
I told him that I had said I would not want to go out with anybody who would make such a judgment, so what was the problem?
Now I'd hit the right note. Ernie glowed; he chopped his hands up and down in the air.
"Absolutely right," he said. "That is absolutely the attitude to take. Honest work. Never listen to anybody who wants to put you down for doing honest work. Just go right ahead and ignore them. Keep your pride. Anybody that doesn't like it, you tell them they can lump it."
This speech of his, the righteousness and approval lighting his large face, the jerky enthusiasm of his movements, roused the first doubts in me, the first gloomy suspicion that the warning, after all, might have some weight to it.

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Emily of New Moon

Aunt Elizabeth had a more prosaic idea to account for Emily’s languor and lack of appetite. She had come to the conclusion that Emily’s heavy masses of hair “took from her strength” and that she would be much stronger and better if it were cut off. With Aunt Elizabeth to decide was to act. One morning she coolly informed Emily that her hair was to be “shingled.”

Emily could not believe her ears.

“You don’t mean that you are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,” she exclaimed.

“Yes, I mean exactly that,” said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. “You have entirely too much hair especially for hot weather. I feel sure that is why you have been so miserable lately. Now, I don’t want any crying.”

But Emily could not keep the tears back.

“Don’t cut it all off,” she pleaded. “Just cut a good big bang. Lots of the girls have their hair banged clean from the crown of their heads. That would take half my hair off and the rest won’t take too much strength.”

“There will be no bangs here,” said Aunt Elizabeth. “I’ve told you so often enough. I’m going to shingle your hair close all over your head for the hot weather. You’ll be thankful to me some day for it.”

Emily felt anything but thankful just then.

“It’s my one beauty,” she sobbed, “it and my lashes. I suppose you want to cut off my lashes too.”

Aunt Elizabeth did distrust those long, upcurled fringes of Emily’s, which were an inheritance from the girlish stepmother, and too un-Murray-like to be approved; but she had no designs against them. The hair must go, however, and she curtly bade Emily wait there, without any fuss, until she got the scissors.

Emily waited — quite hopelessly. She must lose her lovely hair — the hair her father had been so proud of. It might grow again in time — if Aunt Elizabeth let it — but that would take years, and meanwhile what a fright she would be! Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy were out; she had no one to back her up; this horrible thing must happen.

Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something — some strange formidable power in Emily’s soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way — she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistible surge of energy.

“Aunt Elizabeth,” she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, “my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.”

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale — she laid the scissors down — she looked aghast for one moment at the transformed or possessed child before her — and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled — literally fled — to the kitchen.

“What is the matter, Elizabeth?” cried Laura, coming in from the cook-house.

“I saw — Father — looking from her face,” gasped Elizabeth, trembling. “And she said, ‘Let me hear no more of this,’ — just as he always said it — his very words.”

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The Equations of Love

The fresh light of the rising sun touched, and then travelled – losing as it travelled its first quality of morning – down the Golden Ears, down the mountains northeast of Burrard Inlet, down the Sleeping Beauty, down the Lions, and down the lesser slopes descending westwards to the Pacific Ocean, until the radiant sunrise deteriorated into mere flat day. Milkmen were up and about in Vancouver and some railway workers and street railway workers and some hospital attendants; but the phenomenon of sunrise, being only the prelude to another day, slid away unobserved by anybody.
Because Mortimer Johnson’s bedroom faced westwards and was darkened as much as possible, the sun had risen fairly high before Mort woke up. Then, because he had to get up some time or other, he got up. He got up quietly and gently pulled the grey blankets back again over the warm bed because he did not want to disturb his wife Myrtle who still slept. Mort emerged from bed in his underclothes and stood sleepily regarding the curved pile in the bed, which was Myrtle. He stretched and rubbed himself slowly over his stomach and sides and back and shoulders and arms. The feeling of the woollen combinations rubbing on his skin gave him a slow obscure pleasure. Mort’s angel, who usually woke at the same time as Mort (but sometimes awoke at night and plagued him to no purpose in dreams), stepped for a moment outside its domicile, also stretched, and then returned to its simple yet interesting spiritual or shall we say psychic quarters. Mort’s angel had some time ago found out that the insecurity of the quarters wherein it often rocked as in a rough mountainous sea before settling down again facing in a different direction, was due to a weakness in Mort’s potentially strong inner structure, but, as it had discovered that it could do nothing about this weakness, had rather given up.
A man’s angel, after a long residence within or around a man, knows its host (or charge) very well indeed; far better than you or I, who, looking, see perhaps only a stocky middle-aged man, strong but now flabby, frowsty at the moment but when his face has been washed and shaved and his hair parted on the side and brushed back (as it will be in an hour’s time), and his shirt and suit and socks and boots pulled on, and his hat put on, too, at a debonair angle, are justified in believing that this is Mr. Johnson who is coming to do the garden, and seems a very nice man and you hope you’ll get a little satisfaction at last. You are inclined to believe this, because Mort turns upon you his kind brown eyes and tells you that he is a gardener, that he doesn’t pretend to be a carpenter or a plumber or a mechanic, but one thing he can truthfully say is that he’s a gardener and that he loves gardening above all things in the world, and that he has a green thumb. Mort’s angel used to kick him a little when Mort said things like this; but the angel does not kick any more, because it – the angel – realizes that the two things Mort really loves are his wife Myrtle and himself – the first inconstantly and the second with a varying intensity that sometimes includes his fellowman in some vicarious way identified with himself; and that when Mort makes these statements (that he loves being a gardener, or a shepherd, or a plumber, or a horse-breaker, or a plasterer), he really means them, at the moment, and it often gives his interlocutor a great deal of pleasure and a sense of security, poor thing.
After Mortimer had looked at his wife as he continued to rub himself, his early morning thought arose, the first thought of each morning. Was Myrtle pleased last night and will she be pleased this morning when she wakes up, or am I in wrong again, because if she acts like she did yesterday, I’ll slug her. He then applied the usual solution to this important little puzzle and walked barefooted and picking up dust into the adjoining room which was kitchen and everything else, and struck a match and lighted the gas ring and put on the kettle for a cup of tea. When he had made the tea he put the things on a little tray the way Myrtle had taught him to do fifteen years ago, and then he brought the tray to the bedside and put it on the floor because everything else had something on it, and pulled up the blinds and let the morning in, but no air, and bent over Myrtle and poked her.
“Wake up, Myrt. Wake up, Queen,” he said in his pleasant hoarse voice that could sound so easy-going or so angry. “Here’s your tea, honey,” and he watched for the first raising of Myrtle’s heavy lids. One of these days if she doesn’t treat him good he certainly will slug her.
Myrtle was no beauty. She had once had a faint disdainful prettiness. Now she stretched herself like a thin cat in the bed. Her hair was both straight and frizzy. Her nose was thin and would some day be very thin. Her eyes, which she would soon disclose, were of pale indeterminate colour. She was a com plete mistress (or victim) of the volte-face, of the turnabout, and this dubious possession was one of the reasons for her control and enslavement of Mort. The other was her eyelids. When she slowly raises her heavy eyelids as she soon will, but not until she feels inclined to, you will see their power. Myrtle’s eyelids, and her small amused smile, which is not a turning-up but a turning-down of her lips, induce a sudden loss of self-confidence in the individual towards whom the look or non-look, the smile or non-smile, is directed. She can make you, or Mort, feel insecure and negligible, just by the extra quarter-inch of her dropped eyelids and by that amused small turned-down smile. It is not fair. If you should in your beauty, your new hat, and your recent tennis championship appear before Myrtle, she can by her special look and without saying a word, intimate to you and your friends that, for some reason obscure to them and to you but well known to her and to the rest of the world, she thinks very poorly of you. If your uncle, the great explorer from the Gobi Desert, accompanied by a Lama just flown over specially with affidavits from the Desert – if your uncle should arrive with distinctions thick upon him, Myrtle’s eyelids and her secret smile will set him down where your uncle belongs. If, more important still, you should have finished and hung out your sparkling wash for your husband and ten children before bottling two crates of peaches and running up before lunch that nice dress which you are wearing, Myrtle’s eyelids faintly flickering and dropping will discount this and leave you uneasy about something, you know not what. If your son, brilliant young University graduate and soldier that he is, should, so young, be elected to Parliament, Myrtle’s eyelids will say that she knows all about graft and politics, and you can’t tell her. No wonder Myrtle controls and also aggravates her husband Mort Johnson. She is much more aggravating and less lovely than Mona Lisa of whom she has never heard, but from whom she is probably descended. There is only one person on whom the eyelids have no effect, and that is her aunt Mrs. Emblem. Aunty Emblem is able to make Myrtle feel foolish and inadequate any time she wants to. In fact, on Aunty Emblem, the eyelids work quite in reverse.
Well, Myrtle opened her eyes and slowly pulled herself up in bed a bit, and Mort gave her her tea, and then he went and made some breakfast and dressed and shaved and said goodbye and not to hurry and get up for anyone; and he put on his hat at the debonair angle that always gave him such an air, and started down the stairs clumping a good deal, and went out into the street feeling quite pleased with himself because Myrtle was in a good temper and because he had a new job that promised to be easy. He looked very nice as he walked, rolling almost sailor fashion, along Powell Street, and then to the street car. His face was square and pleasant, a bit soft round the jaws perhaps, his smile ready and easy when it came, his brown head and moustache with never a grey hair made him look ten years younger than his age, and his brown eyes that could be laughing, sullen and opaque, or furious – all very nice to look at.
When Mort had gone, Myrtle sat up and really looked about her. What she saw was their bedroom and because she was so accustomed to these two rooms (with sink) at the top of the house off Powell Street, she did not see that the room was dingy and needed cleaning; that it was not carpeted except by one small bed-side mat (which was the cause of daily and nightly outrage and something near madness to the two old men living below); that the bureau was littered with brush, pins, comb, Eno’s, face cream, hair, hairnets, powder, beads and old dust; that the blankets and flannelette sheets were unfresh; that there was no attempt at cheer or colour in the room; that, in short, everything was uniformly dingy and need not be so. She had, of course, her eyelids for a source of pride; but the queer thing was that Myrtle did not realize her eyelids qua eyelids – they were but the outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual conceit, and were her instrument; the fact that she was not clean was irrelevant to her scorn of other people, however clean they might be.
Myrtle’s angel had long since become a nervous and ineffectual creature because Myrtle’s various entities and impersonations were enough to keep any angel thin. Of all people, Myrtle loved herself in whatever guise she saw herself. If her parents had been alive, she might have loved them, too. If she had had children she might have loved them too since they would have been her children. She had Mort, and (and this comforted the angel a good deal) she really loved him in her own way. She reserved the licence to dislike him, to hate him even. For very irrational reasons she would end the day disliking Mort, even when she hadn’t seen him all day; because, perhaps, the butcher had said that so upstanding a man as Mort deserved the best steak in the shop, or because Aunty Emblem in her luscious fashion had said that there was a man, if you like! Or even because his socks had gone at the toe, or because he was darn lazy, which he was, or for no reason at all. Then she knew herself wasted on this louse. But let her friend Irma Flask who lived three blocks away ask how many jobs it was Mort had had since Christmas, and say she pitied Myrtle she certainly did, and whether that was that souse Hansen she seen him with on Thursday, and what a wonderful provider her sister Ruby’s husband was – then Myrtle displayed Mort as the perfect husband, hers and none other, and let them that couldn’t keep their own husbands lay off of hers, whatever she had said about him fifteen minutes before.
“Well well well,” said Myrtle, “this won’t buy the child a frock.” And she got up and dressed and pulled the bedclothes over the bed, and did her face, and put on her hat, and went downstairs, and took the street car to Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne’s. She “gave” Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne three part days a week, and Mrs. Lemoyne, who was not very strong, cossetted Myrtle and apologized to her in a way that annoyed Mr. H. X. Lemoyne whose money Myrtle received.
When Myrtle got on the street car in a fairly good humour, she sat down behind a woman of about her own age, say forty-five, and this woman wore a nice suit and hat made of soft brown tweed. The woman sat there in a composed way and it would appear from her suede gloves and her alligator shoes and the well-made suit and becoming hat that she had a comfortable amount of money and was fairly successful in her undertakings and was happy and satisfied – for the moment – in her mind. This set up a faint irritation in Myrtle, and her angel heard Myrtle’s inner whisper that this woman should not be taking up working people’s places in street cars but should be driving herself. Myrtle and Mort became, for the purpose of argument, “working people,” as opposed to people wearing alligator shoes. The woman was actually a school teacher on leave of absence, and she had put her small house to rights, prepared dinner ahead of time, packed her nephews down to the beach with their lunches, put on her best clothes of which she was very proud, and was going to have lunch with her favourite sister-in-law to show her the new alligator shoes. Myrtle could not be expected to know this, and so she said within herself “A society woman! You can’t tell me! You can’t tell me anything about society women! I know them. I’ll bet her husband’s no good. They make me smile, they certny do, society women.” Having endowed the woman in the brown suit with several unpleasant qualities, and having herself assumed the character of a woman universally put upon, Myrtle got off the street car virtuous but in a poor temper and walked to Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne’s and let herself in.
“Oh, there you are, Mrs. Johnson!” cried Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne, who was still in her dressing gown and anxious to please. “What a beautiful day!” She was terrified by Myrtle’s eyelids, and could be disciplined any minute that Myrtle chose.
Myrtle did not answer (Oh Lord! groaned Mrs. Lemoyne who felt silly at once), but walked to her cupboard, took off her things and put on a coverall which she kept there. She then went to Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne. “Anything special?” she asked, with her mood still upon her.
Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne had worked herself up considerably before Myrtle came, because last night an old school friend from Toronto had rung up, and she had enthusiastically arranged a small luncheon for the old school friend. Three other old school friends. “Just pot luck.” All this she now explained to Myrtle, becoming, as she did so, voluble and undignified. She explained that she had sent the children off to school with sandwiches and that her husband was not coming home to lunch. She kept on saying “Just pot luck!” Myrtle had not bargained for lunch parties, even pot luck. She patted the back of her hair and used her eyelids while avoiding looking at Mrs. Lemoyne who felt guilty and yet very angry with her own self for being so weak-minded.
“I’m not feeling so good this morning,” said Myrtle. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay. Mr. Johnson brought me some tea this morning. When he saw how I looked he begged me not to come. He said, ‘Gosh, you look awful,’ and I said, ‘Believe me, it’s nothing to the way I feel.’ He wanted to stay home with me but I made him go because he’s got a big contracting job up in West Vancouver, but he sure didn’t want me to come. If I’d a known there was a luncheon party on I’d a stayed home like he asked me. He said ‘Now you’ve no need to work like this.’ He doesn’t like me going out, and him getting good money. He thinks it reflects.”
Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne apologized for all of this and felt that she was not paying Myrtle enough for coming and then said she had the dessert ready and what else would Myrtle like her to do. (How cross Hughie would be if he heard me talking like this! But I can’t help it), and Myrtle, now that she had vented her ill-humour and also displayed Mort as a superior type of husband, and had tossed in an artful disparagement of other husbands including Mr. H. X. Lemoyne, now that she had done her bit of drama, became fairly co-operative and “did” the house while Mrs. Lemoyne prepared the lunch. Myrtle forgot that last time Mort had figured in her conversation with Mrs. Lemoyne, he was lazy and you just couldn’t ever depend on him, and she, Myrtle, was the sole provider for the two of them, and what her parents (who had brought her up in affluence) would ever have said, she did not know. Mrs. Lemoyne, who was a pleasant woman but temperamentally afraid of people, remembered this and was puzzled, but did not stop to argue as she ran about the kitchen.

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Stories About Storytellers

Stories About Storytellers

Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others
by Douglas Gibson
introduction by Alice Munro
also available: eBook Paperback
More Info

From STEPHEN LEACOCK 1869–1944
Professor, Humourist, and Immigration Agent


In my experience, every humorous writer finds that his or her public confidently expects them to be a happy person, facing life with a wry chuckle, and perhaps a slow, smiling shake of the head. To his great credit, Leacock tried to shoot down this view. He wrote: "If a man has a genuine sense of humour he is apt to take a somewhat melancholy, or at least a disillusioned view of life. Humour and disillusionment are twin sisters."

Robertson Davies (who knew more than most people about the expectations placed on successful authors in their private lives) wrote in his 1981 introduction to The Penguin Stephen Leacock, "I have written a good deal about Leacock, and I believe that I was the first to press the point that he was not necessarily a man of continuously sunny, carefree temperament…. He had, in fact, the temperament of a humorist, and they are by no means unfailingly sunny people."

Leacock’s life was not short of events that would have disillusioned anyone. His family (of, eventually, eleven children) came from England to rural Ontario and a life of genteel poverty (the boys were not allowed to go barefoot in the summer, like the other local kids; a matter, Leacock later said, "of caste and thistles"). The father, Peter, was a Catholic whose runaway marriage was never accepted by his wife’s Anglican family (and to make matters worse the bride was older, and may have been pregnant). Peter was excellent at provoking pregnancies, but less Productive with his work on the farm near Sutton, just south of Lake Simcoe. He is politely described by the notable Leacock scholar David Staines as "a man of sluggish character." In fact, he was so bad that Stephen and his brothers threw him out of the house (one version involves that Victorian staple, a horsewhip, and there were rumours of drunken violence in the marriage), telling him to stay away, which he did. Lack of money forced young Stephen to drop out of university for a year. For ten years he laboured as a schoolmaster, and, in the words of Robertson Davies "disliked the work heartily."

Although he went on to enjoy great professional success and prosperity, in his marriage he lost his wife to cancer when she was forty–five, and never remarried. His beloved only son, "Little Stevie," remained miniature, so tiny that he barely attained a height of five feet, and became an embittered drunk, his escapades hushed up by the local community. Even the teaching life Leacock loved, where in his tattered gown he could put on an Eccentric Old Professor show for his students, was taken from him when McGill briskly removed him from the faculty when he reached sixty–five — a crushing blow: "I was then retired, much against my will, on grounds of senility, having passed the age of sixty–five." It should not have been a surprise, of course, since he had voted, many years earlier, for precisely that retirement provision.

And what a perfect Leacock funny story that would be: a middleaged professor, certain that old age will never come to him, votes for compulsory retirement at sixty–five, then reacts with outrage when it is applied to him. Leacock’s coolly classical view of human nature, in which people routinely fall prey to false hopes and small hypocrisies, believing that they are exceptions to the follies of human nature, provided him with his profitable living as a humorist. But it did not protect him here, in his own life. He did not die a happy man.

So what remains? In Montreal there is, of course, the Leacock Building at McGill, and the portrait in the University Club. Margaret MacMillan’s excellent 2009 short biography ( Stephen Leacock, in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series) notes that in Toronto there is a Scarborough high school named after him, which was attended by young people arrested as accused Islamic terrorists in 2006: a stranger–than–fiction example of how the old Victorian imperialist’s conservative Canada has changed.

By way of contrast, there is the Stephen Leacock Museum at Old Brewery Bay in Orillia. Built in 1927 from his book royalties as the world’s most popular humorist, it is a fine example of a rich Canadian’s lakeside cottage. It was Leacock’s base for fishing and sailing and other summer pursuits, which included paying proper respect to the site’s convivial name. But it was also a research base, though his excursions into Orillia as a famous but unaffected local writer did not have the desired effect. The town barber once complained about the summer visitor’s shameless use of hot local gossip as material for his writing. The complaint predictably ran along the lines of "How the hell was I to know that he was going to take that stuff and …"

Time has healed these wounds, and the Leacock Museum has become a tourist asset. Despite the spread of nearby houses (a scandal worth a Leacock story), the house itself is protected by its site on a point on Lake Couchiching, in tree–shaded grounds. The building is preserved as an old–fashioned cottage, with dark wood panelling throughout its interior, and comes complete with a library, straw hats on pegs, and ancient tennis racquets apparently ready for service. As you tiptoe through the two–storey house, upstairs and downstairs, peering at book Titles, or at the papers on the desk in the study, or at the dishes in the kitchen, it’s hard to avoid the Goldilocks sense that the owners will return at any moment.

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Graeme Gibson Interviews Alice Munro

Graeme Gibson Interviews Alice Munro

From Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson
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