“To Reach Japan” is the first story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
The story, about a woman’s desire to explore and the maternal guilt she suffers (and how, in the past and still today, those two things are difficult to reconcile), begins on a Vancouver train platform. Greta and her young daughter Katy are on the train, heading to Toronto for the summer, looking out to husband and father Peter as he waves and smiles. We find out, through simply observations Munro gives us, that this is a happy family, but not all is perfect. Peter is one of those slightly nervous types who will avoid intimacy if it also means avoiding a potential, spontaneous problem, even minor ones:
Once Peter had brought her suitcase on board the train he seemed eager to get himself out of the way. But not to leave. He explained to her that he was just uneasy that the train should start to move.
This is nothing new to Greta. She’s used to her decent husband’s cautious and practical nature. It’s endearing, but it is also alienating. He has no idea she has the slightest twinge of misgivings. They’re married, after all, and that afords him security to the point he doesn’t have to worry at all. Once out on the platform, he can wave and smile with confidence.
The smile for Katy was wide open, sunny, without a doubt in the world, as if he believed that she would continue to be a marvel to him, and he to her, forever. The smile for his wife seemed hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination about it. Something that could not easily be put into words and indeed might never be. If Greta had mentioned such a thing he would have said, Don’t be ridiculous. And she would have agreed with him, thinking that it was unnatural for people who saw each other daily, constantly, to have to go through explanations of any kind.
The telling word: “constantly.” Time, as it so often does in a Munro story, extends and the train doesn’t depart until the story is already over halfway through. During this period we learn that as a child Peter and his mother escaped from Soviet Czechoslovakia, and he now works as an engineer. In fact, that’s why Greta and Katy are leaving Vancouver for the long train journey to Toronto. Peter is going to work the summer in Lund, up north, and there are no accomodations for his family. Rather than spend the summer home alone, Greta decides to housesit for one of her friends in Toronto who will be spending the summer in Europe. Greta’s choice to go to Toronto is based on more than a desire for a change of scenery.
Greta herself is a poet. She’s not well known and she feels incredibly awkward at publishing parties, drinking way too much and communicating with no one until, at a party the summer before, a kind face offers her a hand. This is Harris Bennett, resident of Toronto. He takes her home that evening and off-handedly expresses his desire to kiss her. They don’t, though maybe it would have been better if they did because now Greta feels a void she cannot stand: “During the coming fall and winter and spring there was hardly a day when she didn’t think of him.” This terrible longing comes mostly during the day, when Peter is at work: “Yet all this fantasy disappeared, went into hibernation when Peter came home. Daily affections sprang to the fore then, reliable as ever.” That’s not strong enough, though. Before she left for Toronto, she sent Mr. Bennett simple note containing the time and date of her arrival.
All of this, in a way, is foundation. At this time, the train jolts onward and Peter is left behind as Greta and Katy take the long cross-continent train ride. For a time, we almost forget about Peter and Mr. Bennett as we focus on what Greta and Katy are doing, particularly as they make new friends on board the train. We remember back to the beginning of the story when Peter is smiling at Katy, both marvelling at the other. Katy, for her part, is young enough not to understand what they are doing. She asks where her father is, assuming they’ll be meeting with him at any moment, causing Greta to think about her relationship with her daughter:
All of her waking time for these hundreds of miles had been devoted to Katy. She knew that such devotion on her part had never shown itself before. It was true that she had cared for the child, dressed her, fed her, talked to her, during those hours when they were together and Peter was at work. But Greta had other things to do around the house then, and her attention had been spasmodic, her tenderness often tactical.
This doesn’t mean, as we may have figured out, that Greta’s feelings toward Peter or Mr. Bennett — or the new friends — aren’t going to lead her to distraction. And just what does Greta have in mind when she reaches Toronto if Mr. Bennett shows up? There is no perfect pathway.
While “To Reach Japan” is not my favorite story in this collection, I was still drawn in and deeply affected. The characters are deep and Munro tantalizes us by giving us a wealth of information in a few gestures. It ends with a question we’ve been asking all along, and we welcome the chance to answer it ourselves.