Alice Munro: “Walker Brothers Cowboy”

Dance-of-the-Happy-Shades“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is the first story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” begins by describing a setting we’ll come to again and again as we read Alice Munro: rural Ontario, close to the Great Lakes (here we are in the fictional Tuppertown, a port town on Lake Huron), the late 1930s. In fact, as Munro opens this story it’s almost as if Munro is setting the stage for her universe, which will be vast, even as it remains tightly focused on these seemingly simple people over the course of nearly sixty years’ steady work. Toward the beginning of the story, our narrator Del Jordan (not named here, but we’ll see her again in Lives of Girls and Women) is with her father, Ben Jordan, looking at Lake Huron, and he tells her how the Great Lakes came to be:

And then the ice went back, shrank back towards the North Pole where it came from, and left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gourged, and ice turned to lakes and there they were today. They were new, as time went. I try to see that plain before me, dinosaurs walking on it, but I am not able to even imagine the shore of the Lake when the Indians were there, before Tuppertown. The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive — old, old – when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.

The paragraph nicely encapsulates Munro’s ability to place focused stories in the larger context of the expansive past and our unfathomable future.

The Jordan family is a young family. Del is pre-adolescent and has a younger brother. Ben Jordan is the “tranquil” father, but he has experienced failure his daughter is just beginning to sense (his son doesn’t seem aware of anything much yet). Ben attempted to run his own business raising silver foxes and mink for their furs, but that business continued to dry up until there was simply no way to continue. Now he works as a salesman for Walker Brothers. We first see the mother as she sews a dress out of scraps for the narrator. She embarrasses her daughter by trying to show off, to act above her economic position; the family’s decline has been hard on her.

One day, at his wife’s suggestion, Ben decides to take his daughter and son on his sales route. After some discouragement he covers with a light heart, he takes them beyond his sales boundary to the home of someone he once knew quite well, Nora Cronin, but he hasn’t seen Nora for years, not since well before our narrator was born. Our narrator has no idea who this woman is.

It’s a friendly visit, and the narrator watches as her father interacts with Nora and Nora’s blind mother, who seems to drift in and out. They are all pleased to see each other after such a long time, and Nora seems genuinely glad to see Ben with his lovely children, though at one time she might have hoped Ben’s children would be her own (we never learn the exact nature of their friendship).

Nothing happens that could be called particularly dramatic. Nora gets Ben a bit of whisky which he drinks, and Nora turns on some music so she and the young children can dance a bit. It’s a brief moment of happiness snatched from otherwise hard times — hard times for Nora here with her aging mother and hard times for Ben at home with his failures and his wife. For the briefest moment, the present is overshadowed by the past.

Despite the relative simplicity of the reunion, the narrator, as young as she is, still recognizes something different that opens up the mystery of who her father is — or, rather, was:

One of the things my mother has told me in our talks together is that my father never drinks whisky. But I see he does. He drinks whisky and he talks of people whose names I have never heard before.

It’s remarkable, and Munro cleverly leaves us in wonder as well at this man we will never know.

So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.

The young son lives completely in the present, practically forgetting the trip as soon as its over, his mind focused on rabbits who might be near the road. Grandma Cronin, on the other hand, is blind to the present; indeed, she seems to drift in from the past and then back to the past again. Then there is our young narrator, just beginning to get a sense of the past. The past of the Lakes is tremendous and incomprehensible, but she finds, to her surprise, that so is the relatively limited past of her father.

And thus we embark with Alice Munro into these things we will never know.

2 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Walker Brothers Cowboy””

  1. Betsy says:

    Beautiful post, Trevor, about a beautifully told story. A great introduction to Munro.

    As for me, first, the title, “Walker Brothers Cowboy”. It describes her depression dad, of course, gamely using good humor, good will and energy to eke out a living as a door-to-door salesman. But in a way, it also describes this girl – so like other satisfyingly androgynous girl-narrators in Munro.

    Before her mother’s requirements, she’s itchy and ungrateful, feeling these requirements as “all I do not want to be.” Her mother has head-aches – thus the nutshell of why she cannot be her mother’s creation. But there is more: the girl, like a boy (unapologetic), is “wary of being trapped into sympathy or any unwanted emotion.” The girl is a stranger to the idea she must dress up or wear curls and bows. Instead, what the sturdy girl enjoys is being like the other kids, who “[occupy] themselves in such solitary ways as I do all day.”

    When she meets her father’s friend Nora, she wants to stay. And she dances with Nora, and says of herself dancing, “me proud, intent”. And she notes that Nora is laughing – not felled by a head-ache.

    One of the girl’s solitary ways is to think, think about what she sees, and in particular, to think about words and the way they define what she has seen. On the evening ride home, Munro describes the girl as thinking over the visit with Nora in this way: “She digs with the wrong foot, I think and the words seem sad to me as never before, dark, perverse.”

    So much in that. (And I use the fragment construction here with confidence, having noticed Munro’s easy use of it.) So much in that – the way the girl thinks over how Nora is Catholic, how she knows she is Catholic, and how someone had used a saying to set Catholics apart. For one thing, in the word foot there is the echo of the dancing, which the girl loved. For another, there is the thinking of about the division implied by the saying and the being aware she might never see Nora again, or that it would be a long time before she saw the likes of her again – the brightness of her, the dancing, the welcome, the absence of head-ache that Nora represents.

    The girl rejects the received truth of this saying as it applies to Nora – that Nora cannot be a part of their life because she is Catholic and should be separate. And more important, the girl is troubled by the fact that Nora — this dancing woman in a bright flowered dress — could never have been her mother because she “digs with the wrong foot.” The girl now thinks of the saying in a new light after Nora, it is now – “dark, perverse.”

    There is in this narrator a stubbornness of self – an unwillingness to have received opinion thrust upon her, or to have unwanted emotion thrust upon her.

    What she wants is to be able to think. (I’m reading Michael Gorra on Henry James right now, and “Walker Brothers Cowboy” is Henry James country – these girls of Munro who want to think and choose and not have definition thrust upon them. They remind me of Isabel, James’s heroine from Portrait of a Lady. Am I stretching things to think that Isabel is a name, a heroine, with resonance for Munro? There’s an Isabel in this story, the sister of Nora’s that marries. And there is a gorgeous Isabel in “Leaving Maverly”.) What Munro makes her narrators do is think about what they have observed.

    But I think it’s also that Munro does not want to thrust unwanted emotion on us, her readers. She is so cautious: she wants us to see. (The way, really, that James is always having his characters and his readers “see” – the way, after enough time, a night’s thinking, maybe – realization emerges.)

    One other thing about this girl narrator interests me: here and there in the story the adult who is doing the telling slips in an observation that is primarily the adult self thinking it all over – as in when she says, “The tiny share of time we have appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.” This is beyond what an eight year old might think in these exact words – but she might intuit it as a child, and put words to it as an adult.

    How Munro gets away with this doubleness of consciousness is one of the things that makes this story so effective. (What this sentence says about the characterizations is a whole other riff, and not my object this time.)

    The way the girl loves to observe and think, and the way, if she wants to, she “[doesn’t] even turn [her] head” – this is Munro’s voice, fully formed in this early writing.

    The story takes place in the 30’s – but it serves the 60’s, when it was written – the time when women thought they just might have before them an escape from a life of sick-headache. Betty Friedan has just published, in 1963, “The Feminine Mystique”, a book that upended, stem to stern, the way American women saw themselves. Activism was in-your-face, and Gloria Steinem was just around the corner. But Munro takes an apposite course, an almost Jamesian course, the exploration of what it would be to indulge those solitary ways that thinking requires, that seeing requires. So she’s been a kind of “Walker Brothers Cowboy” herself.

  2. Trevor says:

    There is so much in this story. I was talking with KFC on his blog the other day. He just reviewed Dear Life (here), and remarked how difficult it was to know what to cover when reviewing one of Munro’s collections because they’re so rich. I think it’s still difficult even when reviewing just one of her stories!

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