Alice Munro’s “The Ottawa Valley” is a masterpiece, for me the best story in the already superb collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. In it, Munro explores a perception that time doesn’t so much as pass as push us down, bury us deeper, the weight of the past — memories, relationships, places — a burden from which there is no relief.
Structurally, the story is among the best Munro had written up to that point in her career and is a sign of the great things to come. There are two journeys into the past. First, the narrator is an older woman looking back on a trip she and her little sister took with their mother to the Ottawa Valley, where her mother grew up, one summer during World War II; she’s trying to recapture her mother. Second, that trip was the mother’s attempt to recapture her own past in a transitional phase of her life, just about the time she began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease.
Memories of her mother crop up all of the time, even in places that seemingly have nothing to do with her mother: “I think of my of my mother sometimes in department stores. I don’t know why, I was never in one with her; their plenitude, their sober bustle, it seems to me, would have satisfied her.” She thinks of her mother “more and more often when I look in the mirror.”
And so the narrator allows herself to go into the memories of that summer in the Ottawa Valley, when she got a sense of her mother’s own past. “The Ottawa Valley” is deliberately structured as two journeys, one real across physical space and one in the mind, though both have the same goal: to sort through the past, in some way, perhaps in order to better comprehend the terrifying, burdensome present. The structure is also set up so the story plays out as a series of what the narrator calls “snapshots.” We move from the narrator’s memories of meeting one family member to another; meanwhile, the memories double-up, because during many of these meetings the family members further reflect on their own pasts.
None of these memories are entirely reliable. Indeed, they clearly contradict one another. And yet. As we learned in Munro’s “Winter Wind” (which to me is a companion piece to “The Ottawa Valley,” taking place, it seems, a bit later in the mother’s illness; we discussed that story here), sometimes the reliability of the memory is not the most important thing. There’s an essence, a truthfulness, that is separate from the actual fact.
Again, I say: and yet. All of this exploration, these journeys, as necessary as they are, as much as we are unable to escape them, they often do not leave us satisfied. Munro’s narrator is using her gifts as a writer to explore the past (and we must surely relate this to Munro’s own relationship with her mother and her subsequent attempts to capture her mother in her fiction), but she is grappling with ghosts.
She explains at the close of the story and of the book that this is not a conventional story. Its aims are not to entertain or even to portray drama in a conventional manner. The narrator — and Munro — step out of the story and address themselves and us as witnesses to their struggle:
If I had been making a proper story out of this, I would have ended it, I think, with my mother not answering and going ahead of me across the pasture. That would have done. I didn’t stop there, I suppose, because I wanted to find out more, remember more. I wanted to bring back all I could. Now I look at what I have done and it is like a series of snapshots, like the brownish snapshots with fancy borders that my parents’ old camera used to take.
But one problem remains: “my mother.”
And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did. She is heavy as always, she weighs everything down, and yet she is indistinct, her edges melt and flow.
Coming, as it does, on the final pages of the story and of the book, we sense the futility of the whole project. And yet.
In “The Ottowa Valley,” a woman of about 40 remembers a time when her mother was her same age and took the narrator and her little sister to visit the old homestead and the old hometown. The story is told in twelve vignettes which, as the narrator explains, are like a series of old snapshots. As with a collage, the reader is being asked to make connections and intuit the meaning.
The occasion of the visit, it takes the reader a while to realize, is that the mother has early-onset Parkinson’s, and this visit home is charged with meaning for her, as it may be the last trip she will be able to make. The memory of the visit is charged with meaning for the narrator as well: she remembers the contradictions the trip represented for her at the time, although as an adult she hopes that writing it all down may yield relief.
Contradictions suffuse the story: lacking mountains, the Ottawa Valley is not a valley in a familiar sense; Aunt Dodie is not really an aunt but a second cousin; Aunt Lena is a real aunt, but she exudes not familial warmth but a kind of terror; the little sister tells people she won’t be going to school, but she will, she just doesn’t understand she can still go to school even if her own is being torn down. Aunt Dodie had been jilted, but she protests that she never cried. The mother contradicts her; she says Dodie cried every night. Perhaps what Dodie meant was she never cried again after that first jag was finally over.
An additional contradictory confusion emanates from the alcoholic uncle. The girl’s mother tolerates Uncle Jim, positively wants to spend time with him, even though back home the mother would hardly have given the likes of him the time of day. She had, after all, required her husband to sign a pre-nuptial pledge of abstinence. The narrator comments on this. “Here was a new contradiction,” she says of her mother’s allowances for Uncle Jim.
An even more startling contradiction results from Dodie and the mother remembering the day they spied on a strapping farmhand who was working in the barn. Dodie had arranged to provide him with lots of lemonade. She had also arranged to sew the fly of his overalls shut when ostensibly she was mending them. When the time came for him to urinate, he picked a convenient place in the barn, but ended up having to drop his clothes entirely, all while the cousins were there to spy on him from the granary. What really matters is that he most likely understood they had arranged the whole thing. The mother remembers that they really saw nothing; Dodie remembers that he turned sideways so they could see it all.
None of this — the young man’s pride, Dodie’s adventurousness, her mother’s denials — is lost on the girl who’s overhearing the story.
Another denial has to do with the mother’s health. That there might be something wrong with the mother is evident in her constantly trembling arm and hand. Dodie tells the older daughter (the narrator) that her mother has surely had a stroke, and that there surely will be more to come. Dodie also allows herself the cruelty of scaring the girl. “Aunt” Dodie, like a wicked witch, tells how she had had to care for an invalid mother, and she prognosticates that the same fate lies ahead for the “niece.” She will have to take care of a mother who gets sicker and sicker and finally dies. When the girl asks her mother about this, the mother contradicts Dodie’s diagnosis. The doctor says there’s been no stroke.
In this story Munro explicitly explores the way people have competing and contradictory needs, the way, for instance, a daughter might need a mother to talk about what is happening and what is coming, and the way the mother might need the opposite. If this mother is ever going to talk with this girl about her illness, it is not going to be during this trip, because this trip has a different purpose, completely contradictory to whatever the girl might need.
The girl needs to face the uncertain future. Munro captures this perfectly in the girl’s anxiety that her broken underpants will fall down at church. There is here that edge of anxious pubescent fore-knowledge that you don’t know what you need to know and that you are going to be unprepared. The girl needs to be prepared — she is insistent she needs a safety pin. Combined with this natural stage in the girl’s life is her dawning awareness that something might be very wrong with her mother, and she needs to be prepared on that score, too.
In what is so naturally consistent with life, the mother has a contradictory need from the daughter’s: she needs to deny the oncoming illness. One of the ways she does it is to not talk about it. Another is to have taken this trip, a trip when she will revisit the past, see places and people for what might be the last time, and perhaps correct how people might remember her. She has her mind on the past, and her daughter has her mind on the future.
Not only does the mother have the satisfaction of showing off her daughters, she can enjoy maintaining her reputation. People knew her to have been very good looking (someone even remarks on this in church), and she is out to have one more spectacular performance. She has brought a striking outfit with her to wear to church: a beautiful sheer gray dress with a matching gray under slip, and a dusky rose hat with a matching set of rose gloves, the rose of which match the rosy flowers printed on the dress. She is a fine sight.
We find out that the strapping farmhand, now a prominent man in the community and likely to be “nominated,” will be at church as well. The mother is issuing her own contradiction. She is not just the prim girl she used to be, she is also the beautiful mother of two beautiful girls. This time, she is going to give him a look at her. In her sheer dress, she’s revealing herself to the boy who had “turned himself sideways” so the girls might see what he knew they were there in the barn to see. The mother is herself contradictory: with the outfit, she’s saying she can be properly stylish, could have been stylish enough for him. With the sheer dress, she’s replying to the man, lo these many years later, answering his show with a show of her own. But in church! With the unpinned slip that’s gone astray, there’s also a hint of the disease that will destroy her.
But what Munro wants to know is this. Is the reader aware of the terrible anger the girl’s been left to manage? A girl cannot help but be angry when her mother is so pre-occupied. Later, at forty, this girl is still volcanically angry. Of her mother, she says:
And she is the one I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, as she always did. She is heavy as always, she weighs everything down, and yet she is indistinct, her edges melt and flow.
Whether or not the daughter will be able to get rid of the mother and live her own life is at the center of this story. What is it the narrator wants to escape? The whole package — the mother’s power and beauty, her weakness, her inability to see the daughter’s need, her inability to prevent what inevitably must happen, her necessary self-centeredness, her possibly unfair self-centeredness, her distance, her choice to ignore her daughter’s need. The narrator wants to get rid of the knowledge that her mother couldn’t protect her, or the doubt that perhaps the mother chose not to protect her. Such a choice would be, of course, the very contradiction of motherhood.
In Munro, people often do something that seems right but is, at the same time, completely wrong. In “Memorial” a woman sleeps with her sister’s husband, offering him comfort on the night of his son’s funeral, a night when the man’s wife can offer no such comfort. But the interloper has not just given comfort, she has also taken revenge on her sister. She has used death as an opportunity to even the score against her sister’s large family, wealth, style, position, and success. As bad as this is, it is not as bad as what Dodie does, because Dodie has used a child to take her revenge on the “sister” who has the beauty, the husband and the family Dodie does not. The child Dodie uses to get her revenge has a mother who is so distracted by what is happening in her own life that she can offer no protection. The narrator’s anger is on behalf of a child who deserved her parent’s whole attention and protection and did not have it.
Not surprisingly, the daughter also takes revenge. She knows the mother’s outfit is held together by a safety pin, and perhaps she concocts an emergency of the underpants just to punish her mother. Perhaps that was her “revenge, of a sort.”
Conflict and resentment come to all girls and all mothers, but there are extremes in this story. Not every girl has to face her mother’s complete collapse; not every girl has to search for where that collapse began, not every girl has to wonder what role she played in the mother’s complete collapse.
What is it that the narrator wants to know? One question is whether the self-centeredness of the mother is merely a result of the Parkinson’s, or actually something specific to the mother’s personality. A second question is whether the daughter can survive the motherlessness implicit in the Parkinson’s and perhaps implicit in the mother’s own nature.
The daughter is wary of the coming sexualized world (as summed up by the underpants that threaten to fall). The girl sees how her mother refuses to face facts — the mother did see the strapping farmhand’s nakedness, but she denies it; perhaps she did desire him, but she lost him; the mother does know what is wrong with her arm and hand, but she will pretend she doesn’t for as long as possible; the mother does know her daughter is distressed, but she refuses to nurse that pain, perhaps forever.
Why was this so? Munro says her narrator would like know more and then be free. But that knowledge is not hers to know, given that the mother is by now “indistinct.” But even so, the mother “has stuck to [her] and refused to fall away.”
Unprepared. They are all unprepared for what is yet to come, and no safety pin will save them. Not from the sexualized world and all its contradictions, and not for the death in life that Parkinson’s will become. They are unprepared. For this, the girl is forever angry.
But as for safety pins: Munro contradicts herself.
The narrator says she could have ended the story at the moment the mother refused to answer the girl’s question about what was wrong with her (and when the mother implicitly refused to promise it would all be alright). Munro says that this refusal should have been the “proper” ending; she should have stopped there.
But she goes on. She remembers the night that the three adults began trading poetic lines from the old schoolbook, Macaulay and then Tennyson and, finally, a favorite Canadian poet. At that point, the adult brother and sister and the cousin recite the whole thing together, all of them in unison, for once. Rhyme and verse appear several times in “The Ottawa Valley.” It is as if this is the preparedness, this is the stay against confusion, this is the saving grace, this the safety: our common delight in the way words transform life, if we can let them. Or the way words capture the complete contradiction that life is.