“The Shining Houses” was one of Alice Munro’s very first stories, written before she had what may be considered a break through when she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht” (after which, many of her stories, including “Walker Brothers Cowboy” (my thoughts here), dug into more autobiographical and murky territory). In an interview with Metcalf, she said it was one of her “exercise stories . . . the work of a beginning writer.” It shows. The ideas and structure are a bit more plain and even simple. Still, it’s the work of an amazing writer and even has portions that shocked me.
In general, “The Shining Houses” is about one generation and its values coming in to take over — even push out — the older generation, even though the younger generation has little wisdom to recommend it, all of its energy coming from youth and arrogance. The central character, Mary, is part of the new generation, but she has some sensitivity to the past, to its complexity, and to the fact that her generation is going to deal with some shocks, regardless of how perfect their plans now seemed.
The story begins with Mary sitting on the steps of Mrs. Fullerton’s house to pay for the eggs Mrs. Fullerton sells her. Mary likes to hear stories, particularly those that show how multi-faceted the past is.
And Mary found herself exploring her neighbour’s life as she had once explored the lives of grandmothers and aunts — by pretending to know less than she did, asking for some story she had heard before; this way, remembered episodes emerged each time with slight differences of content, meaning, colour, yet with a pure reality that usually attaches to things which are at least part legend.
Mrs. Fullerton, for her part, doesn’t go out of her way to talk to anyone. She lives alone, selling eggs, in what most would consider to be a rundown house with a disheveled yard: “Here was no open or straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final.” Still, for the new generation of young professionals, properties like Mrs. Fullerton’s are an eyesore, bringing down the value of their “new, white and shining houses, set side by side in long rows in the wound of the earth.”
After visiting with Mrs. Fullerton, Mary goes to “Edith’s Debbie’s birthday party.” The other parents are there, and it comes out that they have found a legal way to get Mrs. Fullerton and her unsightly property out of their neighborhood. Munro portrays these people as smart but not wise: “And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger.”
Nevertheless, they are good people, she says: “they want homes for their children, they help each other when there is trouble, they plan a community — saying that word as if they found a modern and well-proportioned magic in it, and no possibility anywhere of a mistake.”
It’s not Munro’s strongest story. But it is still a strong story with plenty to think about.