“How I Met My Husband”
by Alice Munro
from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Something-I've-Been-MeaningTrevor

The title of the story looms over the entire narrative, as it’s not until the last page that we learn who the husband is — it turns out it’s someone who, until that last page, we haven’t even met. So that’s my first puzzle: why did Munro give this story that title? What game is she playing with that structure and our expectations? It’s surely not just a ha-ha-gotcha ploy.

The second puzzle is this: why are so many of the people in the story pretending to occupy roles they don’t? First, we have the Peebles, who have recently moved to the country but who, according to our narrator, will always be city people. We have Alice Kelling, a woman who is chasing her fiancé around the region, trying to pin him down — and he will just keep moving on to get away from her. We have that husband we meet on the last page, who unknowingly assumes the role of the man being chased, though the narrator was not paying attention. And then we have the narrator herself, fifteen-year-old Edie, who does similar things throughout the story: most obviously, she tries on one of Mrs. Peebles’ dresses and, again through a misunderstanding, thinks she’s been “intimate” with a man.

Those two issues out of the way, perhaps a bit of context is appropriate. The narrative itself is relatively straightforward. Young Edie is away from home for the first time, working as a hired-girl for Dr. and Mrs. Peebles, who have recently moved to a country farm, not to work it but just to live there. When the story begins, a plane is landing in the field next to the Peebles’ home. Terrified, they think it is crash landing, perhaps into their home. The plane lands safely, of course, but the “crash landing” may still be appropriate: the pilot is a man named Chris Watters. Back from the war, he’s looking to earn some money by giving folks around the region rides in the sky. He comes to the Peebles’ place to get water, and he doesn’t hesitate to flirt a bit with Edie at their first meeting when he sees her wearing Mrs. Peebles’ dress. Edie is young and admits she didn’t have the first clue how to respond.

Everyone is a bit surprised when a woman shows up asking about Chris Watters. This is Alice Kelling, claiming they are engaged to be married. Chris comes, happy on the outside, but that turns out to be just a show, a show Alice knows well. That night, Edie sees them go their separate ways without so much as a hug. Edie then imagines what it might be like if she were in Alice’s shoes; certainly there’d be more than a hug.

As I mentioned above, imagining — whether deliberately imagining or due to misunderstanding — a different life comes up again and again in this story. Indeed, this whole period of Edie’s life is a bit of role-play. She’s a country girl, poor, uneducated, and at the Peebles’ home she is allowed to drink ginger ale as if it was water. At times it is easy to assume the role and — almost — discard the old:

Sometimes I thought about the way we lived out at home and the way we lived here and how one way was so hard to imagine when you were living the other way.

We know pretty early on that Chris Watters is not the husband Munro’s title refers to. Edie, for all her desires and all their differences, is in this situation the same as Alice. Chris has wooed them both, and perhaps in the moment he believes his promises for the future — for Alice it was marriage, for Edie it was a letter, promised as he was getting ready to fly away from Alice again.

We also know that the promised letter is not going to come. This thought never crossed the young Edie’s mind, though, and for some time she waited at the mailbox smiling. If a letter wasn’t there, she was still able to walk away with a smile, certain it was coming soon.

Till it came to me one day there were women doing this with their lives, all over. There were women just waiting and waiting by mailboxes for one letter or another. I imagined me making this journey day after day and year after year, and my hair starting to go gray, and I thought, I was never made to go on like that. So I stopped meeting the mail.

And so we get the last misunderstanding, not one that leads to a bad ending, though. The young mailman is certain Edie is so attentive to the post because of him, not because of any mail. He looks forward to that smile every day. When she stops going to wait by the mailbox, he makes his move, and they marry.

The last paragraph shows the fundamental misunderstanding, one that Edie doesn’t mind:

He always tells the children the story of how I went after him by sitting by the mailbox every day, and naturally I laugh and let him, because I like for people to think what pleases them and makes them happy.

I think another significant passage is one from earlier in the story, when Edie is explaining what it’s like to work for the Peebles (and anyone, probably). The passage line about allowing things to be, allowing people to assume you’re ignorant as you move around within their lives.

They like to think you aren’t curious. Not just that you aren’t dishonest, that isn’t enough. They like to feel you don’t notice things, that you don’t think or wonder about anything but what they liked to eat and how they like things ironed, and so on.

This suggests to me that most people are at least somewhat aware of where the role-playing begins, casting a bit of a sad light on the ending. Does Edie’s husband have any inkling? Maybe not, but Edie does, and surely on some level he’s sensitive to that.


Betsy

I loved “How I Met My Husband.” Its tenderness towards all of its characters touched me, its gentle tone and humor entertained me, its spectacular middle surprised and delighted me, and I liked very much the complications set up by the last sentence.

Chris Watters is the story’s deus ex machina. That extra “t” in his name is telling us something — that he is not the real thing? that he has a little too much of something or other? Without him and his commotion, there wouldn’t be a story, couldn’t be a happy ending. With him, though he provides the requisite experience that Munro requires of her characters; with him comes that brush with danger that is Munro’s idea of the best teacher possible. Ready to make a little money with some barnstorming, this stranger sets his plane down in an empty field across the way from the Peebles family.

“Crash landing,” their little boy said. Joey was his name.

This turns out to be true, but not in the manner Joey intends. The flat, direct manner that Munro uses to deliver Watters’ arrival signals an impending crash to the  reader as well, but in the meantime, Munro spins out such an entertaining story, we kind of lose track of the warning for a bit.

Edie, the live-in teenaged baby sitter, had quit school, saying, “The last thing I wanted, anyway, was to go on and end up teaching school.” Once again, we see that school is not the best teacher, given that Watters is another iteration of Garnet French — an irresistible male force. School doesn’t prepare us for the Garnet Frenches of the world, and, in a way, they are, if you can survive them, good teachers. While Del’s encounter with Garnet French ruins her, Edie’s encounter with Chris Watters gives her experience with which to sort things out.

The long and the short of it is that Watters gets into Edie’s head: a couple of spectacular encounters with him and she is writing her life story with him as the main squeeze. What is so lovely about this story, however, is that it is Edie’s own recklessness that makes it all happen. One day, while Mrs. Peebles is out with the kids having their hair cut, Edie gets the idea of trying on one of Mrs. Peebles’ best dresses: a “bluish-green [. . .] almost silvery” off-the shoulder satin dress. “The fit was beautiful” and “one thing led to another.” (I love the gentleness of that.) Edie does up her hair and adds some make-up. Whereupon the airman knocks on the door.

As Munro has already said, “One thing led to another.” Edie’s essentially innocent dealings with Watters are complicated by the arrival of his girl-friend, and suddenly he is off again.

Edie waits for him to write — and while keeping a daily vigil at the mailbox, she catches the attention of the shy mailman. Munro doesn’t say directly that he understands the situation. But the tone of the story, and the time it takes for him to court Edie, makes us think there is more to him than meets the eye. After all, Edie tells about how “[i]t never crossed my mind for a long time that a letter might not come.” Like a lot of us, Edie learns the hard way, and like a lot of us, it takes Edie a long time to learn something.

She closes her story with this wonderful, enigmatic message regarding her husband and herself:

He always tells the children the story of how I went after him by sitting at the mailbox every day, and naturally I laugh and let him, because I like for people to think what pleases them and makes them happy.

With this sentence for starters, there are a lot of stories the reader could write about Edie and her mailman. And we want to, because Edie is a wonderful girl — full of spunk and readiness, and not, in her tone mean or resentful, as she well might be. She tells her story with more wonder than not at her good fortune for having met both men. She is a lovely alternate to Del, but maybe not reckless enough to carry an entire book, which is why we have Del, who is.

Munro doesn’t waste a word. Joey announced, “Crash landing.”  Whether or not that’s so is left to the reader, but one needs to bear in mind, he’s only a little kid, without much experience to bring to bear.

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By |2017-08-03T22:48:27+00:00April 25th, 2014|Categories: Alice Munro|Tags: |0 Comments

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