“The Time of Death” is the seventh story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (click here for links to reviews of the other stories in Dance of the Happy Shades).
According to what I’ve found, “The Time of Death” is the oldest story in the collection, written in 1953 and first published in Canadian Forum in 1956. While I can see that it perhaps lacks some of the polish, acute observations, and dramatic turns of Munro’s later works, it’s a remarkable short story apparently based on a real death that took place in Wingham, Munro’s hometown, in 1939.
This story also takes place in a small town, in the poorer section. The first snows of the year are expected at any time, but they have not arrived.
When the story begins, the death has already happened: “Afterwards . . .” Leona Parry, the mother of the deceased child, is being tended by the neighborhood women, trying to make some sense of what happened. Though the women are solicitous, early on we get the sense that they judge Leona. Here’s Leona:
I wasn’t hardly out of the house, I wasn’t out of the house twenty minutes –
(Three-quarters of an hour at the least, Allie McGee thought, but she did not say so, not at the time. . . .)
Allie McGee is Leona’s next-door neighbor. When the tragedy occurred, that’s where Leona was, sewing an outfit for her nine-year-old daughter Patricia, bragging about how Patricia had been singing since she was three and was known as “the Little Sweetheart of Maitland Valley, the Baby Blonde, the Pint-Sized Kiddie with the Great Big Voice.” This certainly annoyed Allie McGee, though of course she probably didn’t say so at the time.
While Leona goes on, and Allie McGee keeps correcting her in her mind, the women continue to take care of the poor mother. Munro presents them darkly, almost as malign priestesses:
And the women in the kitchen would crowd around the couch, their big bodies indistinct in the half-light, their faces looming pale and heavy, hung with the ritual masks of mourning and compassion. Now lay down, they would say, in the stately tones of ritual soothing. Lay down, Leona, she ain’t here, it’s all right.
At this point in the story, we don’t know exactly what’s happened. Who’s died? Leona’s pride and joy, Patricia? Why are the women saying “she ain’t here, it’s all right”? It takes a bit of time before we know any of that, and we first go back to before the death happened.
Patricia is the oldest of the four Parry children. Then we have George and Irene, and finally Benny, the eighteen-month-old who can say only one word, the name of the scissor man who comes down the street once in a while.
Patricia stands in sharp contrast to her mother, whom we’ve seen until now as hysterical, generally disliked, and probably negligent. Patricia tries to be the responsible one: “She did things the way a grown-up does; she did not pretend things.” One of those grown-up things is to clean the house (“It never gets cleaned up like other places,” she says). Patricia puts a pot of water on the stove to boil for cleaning; Benny somehow tips the pot over and is scalded to death.
Patricia’s reaction to the death is almost to pretend it didn’t happen, to simply go on being the adult who didn’t dwell. Meanwhile, her mother stays lying down in her room, demanding that no one allow Patricia near her. Patricia tries to keep calm. When Allie McGee lets the children sleep at her house and then the next day takes them to buy some shoes for the funeral. At the shop, Patricia rushes to the bathroom first to clean her feet as best she can. When she gets out, she hears Allie McGee say to the shopkeeper, “You should have seen the bedsheets I had them on.”
Again, Patricia seems to absorb this, but we know by now that Patricia has been absorbing a lot through her entire life. The funeral comes and goes, and the neighbors consider their job complete; “now things were back to normal and they disliked Leona as much as before.”
One day, the scissor man comes down the street. Patricia breaks down in hysterics. The neighbors scoff: “That is a prize kid of Leona’s, the neighbous said to other as they went home. [. . .] They laughed gloomily and said, Yeah, that future movie-star. Out in the yard yelling, you’d think she’d gone off her head.” She’s just like Leona.
So what is this story about? Reactions to death? Parental neglect and whim (when the Maitland Valley Entertainers ask if Patricia can sing for them, Leona recovers and dotes on Patricia again, though probably this passes quickly once Patricia is hit by the death)? Misunderstanding and cruelty?
Obviously, Patricia’s own delayed reaction to Benny’s death is important; it’s emphasized in the delayed snow that, in the final image, is finally starting to fall on the homes “that have never been painted.” These homes and their inhabitants are presented as alienated from each other and removed from society. It’s a terrifying vision of rootlessness, and I see no hope things will get better for Patricia and her two younger siblings. This is a cruel place on the periphery, a kind of purgatory for the innocent who have nothing to purge.