In an interview in 1972, Alice Munro told John Metcalf that “A Trip to the Coast” was her least favorite story in Dance of the Happy Shades. It was written more or less at the same time that she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht,” which is a kind of watershed story after which she felt she finally started her real writing. While I consider “The Peace of Utrecht,” the story we will be discussing next, to be superior to “A Trip to the Coast” in almost every way, I find this story remarkable all the same, not least because the ending led me to reread the story a couple of times before putting down these thoughts. These early stories from Alice Munro often end with a mysterious word, a word that we feel is the key to understanding the remainder of the story and with it the depths of the characters Munro is offering us. Here, at the end, we wonder how eleven-year-old May’s grandmother was “victorious” as she lay dead over the store counter.
“A Trip to the Coast” begins beautifully with a description of one of those habitations along the highway one can scarcely believe exists, so small are they that there is almost no conceivable way the inhabitants can subsist.
The place called Black Horse is marked on the map but there is nothing there except a store and three houses and an old cemetery and a livery shed which belonged to a church that burned down.
I now live in the western United States, and I love long drives far from the cities and towns. I see these places often, with their one shop that can’t sell much fuel or food, and I love that such a forsaken place and its forsaken people are Munro’s subjects.
People who are passing through, on their way to the Lakes of Muskoka and the northern bush, may notice that around here the bountiful landscape thins and flattens, worn elbows of rock appear in the diminishing fields and the deep, harmonious woodlots of elm and maple give way to a denser, less hospitable scrub-forest of birch and poplar, spruce and pine — where in the heat of the afternoon the pointed trees at the end of the road turn blue, transparent, retreating into the distance like a company of ghosts.
Here in Black Horse live the young May, her grandmother, and Hazel, who may or may not be May’s mother (she is the grandmother’s daughter). The grandmother runs the store. On most mornings she has to go wake May to get her to help, but not this particular morning. Today May woke early with “a feeling through her whole body like the feeling inside her head when she was going to sneeze.” She wants something from this: “Nobody had spoken for this day yet; its purity astonished her.”
But Grandma is awake. She walks around the corner fully dressed (with clothes worn in the same way the fields are). May tries to talk to her, to ask why she’s up so early, but Grandma answers only when she wants to. Though we’ve had indications, it’s here that we see how strained May’s relationship with her grandmother is. This is a cruel grandma who lords over her daughter and granddaughter. She has claim on everything and makes them feel insignificant.
May saw her come, not really with surprise but with a queer let-down feeling that seemed to spread thinly from the present moment into all areas of her life, past and future. It seemed to her that any place she went her grandmother would be there beforehand: anything she found out her grandmother would know already, or else could prove to be of no account.
Grandma is described by the third-person narrator as having a head that was “rather big for her body and with her hair pulled tightly over her skull she had the look of an under-nourished but maliciously intelligent baby.” Grandma later says to May, “Shame to be such a baby.” And Hazel, who is now in her 30s, still acts like an adolescent, unable to move on, though Grandma cruelly reads personal ads to her. The three individuals, like Black Horse, are stunted. The grandmother refuses to move away. Worse, she seems to maliciously hold the other two back, one day telling May she could not go swimming with her friends. Why? Well, because.
She had a feeling that her grandmother did not believe in her own reasons any more, that she did not care, but would go on pulling these same reasons out of the bag, flourishing them nastily, only to see what damage they could do.
But there is a moment of vulnerability when the grandmother both tells May how old she is and tells her they should take a trip to the coast together, on their way to visit the grandmother’s son whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years. Before this can happen, though, Grandma dies, rather suddenly, seemingly in an effort to keep a hypnotist from opening up her secrets.
So how is this death victorious, at least from the perspective of May? Is it because the trip to the coast will now never happen? Is May now stuck, though she might appear to finally be free? Is it that now the grandmother has entered another realm, gone before May yet again into a world of secrets she won’t divulge? It’s mysterious. I have some thoughts that are still processing, but I’d love to hear what others think.
“A Trip to the Coast” takes place in Black Horse, a place with nothing but three houses and a cemetery, a livery shed and a store. The store survives because it’s on the way to the Lakes of Muskoka, and it has a gas station.
May is a girl of eleven who lives at the store with her miserable old grandmother, a woman of 78 who gives May “a queer let-down feeling that seemed to spread thinly from the present moment into all areas of her life, past and future.” The grandmother is, to May’s thinking, cold, sly, malicious, agitated, mean, outrageous, and remote. Once, for fun, the grandmother played dead. The trip to the coast in question is her grandmother’s sudden proposal that May and she go out to the coast to visit Lewis, the grandmother’s son. May thinks:
The very words produced a feeling of coolness and delight in her. But she did not trust them, she could not understand; when in her life had her grandmother promised her any fine thing before?
Hazel, the grandmother’s thirty-three-year-old daughter, has fine things packed away in a chest, fine things she cannot bear to share with her mother or May. As a matter of habit, Hazel wears “an oblique, resentful expression.”
More than Hazel, though, the whole story is “oblique.” No inquiry or argument is made into whether May has parents, knows their whereabouts, misses them, yearns for them, or even ever thinks about them.
She accepted the rule of her grandmother as she accepted a rain squall or a stomach ache, with a tough, basic certainty that such things would pass.
May appears to have no mother or father she knows of, yet candidates present themselves to the reader. Hazel, a thirty-three-year-old who appears stuck in adolescence, could be May’s mother, but that is a frightening thought, so unconnected to May as she seems to be.
On this day, though, May has awakened early and gone outside, and “had a premonition of freedom and danger, like a streak of dawn across that sky.”
This story is about the day her grandmother dies, the day her grandmother fights a strange, “victorious” battle, but obliquely, the death is about May’s life. For, if the grandmother dies, who will she live with? Hazel? Not that the story even mentions May’s future. But if she does live with Hazel, May has obliquely ended up with a mother who has been up til now been allowed to renounce the name of mother. One speculates about how that will go.
But the day that May is set free by her grandmother’s death, the real question is not who might take care of her in this event, but whether her grandmother will “capitulate” to being hypnotized by a stranger who’s stopped at the store. He says through hypnosis he can “[f]ind out their hidden worries and anxieties that’s causing them all the trouble.”
But the grandmother declares stubbornly, “You couldn’t do that with me.” When she feels herself going under, she dies fighting it off. May sees that she dies “victorious,” able to resist hypnosis, able to resist making any possible revelation of her secrets. She’d rather die than unlock the chest. One has the sense of her going to the grave with her secrets, and that May knows that’s what she’s doing.
The story presents us with Munro’s oblique technique: truths are concealed from a character’s consciousness. The pleasure of the story is in the reader gradually realizing the truth. In this case, we have the sense that May will realize a whole lot more as time goes by. Will she get her trip to the coast?
For now, it is enough that we see how May might have a life free of this horrible woman and to know May’s premonition — “like a streak of dawn across the sky” — that it will be a life of both “freedom and danger.”
One other thing: Munro makes every sentence, every detail, count. It makes a difference to this sad story that the trees in the distance are “like a company of ghosts” and that May’s nightgown, which used to be Hazel’s, “billowed out in a soft, ghostly way behind her.” May now has her future beckoning, but she has her ghosts, too.
What I’m trying to say is this: when you read a Munro story, she gives you a lot to think about. Connections, questions, allusions, suggestions, and possibilities all flow from the flowing words and sentences. Her stories ripple like a brain.