"Amundsen" by Alice Munro Originally published in the August 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ll complain still that The New Yorker publishes too much Junot Díaz, but the number of his appearances in the last few years is overshadowed by Alice Munro’s. But I won’t complain that there’s too much Munro, because I also don’t feel Díaz’s stories hold a candle to Munro’s. That she can produce, time and time again, these quietly powerful stories is wonderous.
“Amundsen” itself is wonderous. Once again, Munro gives us a story that dwells on the details while shunning what many writers would consider the larger moments. When the story opens, Vivien Hyde has left Toronto to become the new teacher at a tuberculosis “san” near a frigid place called Amundsen. It’s the mid-1940s and the War is the big news, but in Amundsen, everyone is dealing with life and death closer to home. When someone doesn’t show up for work, you assume the worst. At first, it makes the residents seem distanced, but Vivien begins to understand: “It was just that whatever happened in places they didn’t know had to be discounted; it got in their way and under their skin. Every time the news came on the radio, they switched it to music.”
The first person to really introduce herself to Vivien is a young girl — healthy, so she won’t be in Vivien’s class — named Mary. Mary’s mother works at the sanitorium, and Mary is boisterous and happy to welcome Vivien. Mary introduces Vivien to her new boss, the doctor, Alister Fox. As they talk, Vivien quickly figures out that Fox is “the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.”
Munro allows us to settle into this community, and we aren’t sure exactly where this will all go. But, as usual in a sudden and perfect transition, Vivien is on her way to dinner with Dr. Fox. We know it means something to Vivien because she chooses to miss Mary’s play in order to subject herself to Dr. Fox’s superiority and condescension — or is that just the way he flirts (reminding me of the despicable Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin).
Why does she allow Dr. Fox into her life? She knows how he is, but she can’t deny a desire to be with him. There are some explanations — “My stock had risen. Whatever else I was, at least I might turn out to be a woman with a man.” But even this doesn’t seem to answer the question completely.
Anyway, Munro continues to move the story forward quickly, again, taking time to develop small moments (it’s heartbreaking when Mary comes to perform her play while Vivien and Dr. Fox are having another dinner together), and the seemingly large moments are passed by quickly, as if Vivien doesn’t want to dwell on them, either because they don’t matter (which is quite possible) or because the pain is slightly more intimate.
I don’t want to give much more away, but if the sunlight outside is too strong and you’re feeling a bit hot in this late summer weather, I can promise this story will cool you down.