As a parent of young children who are about to begin (or have long since begun) realizing just how flawed I am, Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana” is terrifying. It reminds me that the protection I offer my children from pain (and even death) is not as sure as I want them to believe it is. I am even going to be the cause of some of their sadness, the sadness of these children who trust me entirely until they no longer do. “Miles City, Montana” reminds me that it’s an illusion I try to believe in and try to get them to believe in. Munro’s narrator looks at this with a bit of disgust, though she herself as a parent has had to buy and sale the same argument.
But “Miles City, Montana” doesn’t start with parents. It goes back to Ontario in the early 1940s where, as a young child, the narrator is attending a funeral with her parents. One of the young boys in the community fell off a branch into the gravel pit and drowned. The men all rushed out to begin a search, but it was a forlorn return to the homes, the narrator’s father himself carrying the body. But at the funeral the narrator experiences a new sensation of anger toward her father and also, though we haven’t even met her yet, to the mother:
They stood side by side opening and closing their mouths for the hymn, and I stood removed from them, in the row of children, watching. I felt a furious and sickening disgust. Children sometimes have an access of disgust concerning adults. The size, the lumpy shapes, the bloated power. The breath, the coarseness, the hairiness, the horrid secretions. But this was more. And the accompanying anger had nothing sharp and self-respecting about it.
What caused this anger? The parents were part of the community grieving the death by drowning of a young boy. The narrator’s father hadn’t, by conventional standards, done anything wrong. The death was an accident. The narrator does not quite know for some time: “It could not be understood or expressed, though it died down after a while into a heaviness, then just a taste, an occasional taste — a thin, familiar misgiving.”
We don’t have to trust the narrator, though. This particular funeral may not have been the time she felt any kind of anger toward her parents. Munro begins the story by describing the scene when she saw her father carrying the young boy across the field. She admits: “I don’t think I really saw all this.” Another memory, of a 1961 road trip across the northern United States she took with her husband and young daughters, may be influencing her memory of the funeral in the early 1940s. And even her memories of that 1961 road trip may be somewhat unreliable, since the narrator is actually telling this entire story several years (maybe even a couple of decades) later, long after she and her husband have divorced.
So what do we have here? An aging woman (we don’t know anything about her life at the time she is recounting this story) is looking back, trying to understand anger and guilt, which probably feed on one another. What events gave rise to her misgivings, she wonders. What anger does she feel toward herself for her own parental failings? What guilt?
Interestingly, and frighteningly, the guilt is not due to any particular neglect, any particular act or omission. It’s about harboring a child’s trust despite knowing that you really cannot protect them at all times. It’s a kind of hypocrisy, apparently one that has come to weigh on the narrator at this later stage in life, causing her to look back — knowing she is probably not getting the story right — and attempt to make some sense of “the most ordinary tragedy.”
While “the most ordinary tragedy” is specifically drowning, Munro’s narrator knows the tragedy is even more ordinary than that. It’s the every-day ways we hurt and get hurt while navigating this life. She suggests as much in the story’s final lines, which have a subtle reference (perhaps unintentional) to The Great Gatsby‘s final lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Here are Munro’s narrator’s final thoughts, as she thinks back to the day they left Miles City, Montana:
So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous — all our natural, and particular, mistakes.
In the great “Miles City, Montana,” Munro’s narrator famously says:
In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide — sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.
The story makes an effective argument that 50s-style men could impose a petty tyranny upon their wives that robbed them of rightful freedoms. Andrew, the husband in this case, is seen abusing his wife for the lack of lettuce in his sandwich. He also has announced to her in the past that she is selfish and untrustworthy, but by implication, he is also announcing that he himself is neither of those things. He ironically indicates to her that his love for her grew out of that knowledge, thus indicating to us his (monstrous) condescension and dependence upon his sense of superiority and power.
Never gentle with women, Munro lets the wife (the narrator) accept this definition, deftly suggesting to us a kind of Stockholm syndrome. There’s no fair fight in this marriage; there is a tin pot dictator on the one side, and on the other, an ineffective guerilla hiding in the bushes. Thus Munro indicts this marriage on both sides, and it is a marriage, the narrator confesses, that does not last.
Unfortunately, there are children. Here, the protests of the mother are less defensible. Although any mother of young children craves solitude, this one has cooked up a religion of motherhood that doesn’t wash. She wants to believe that children are “splendidly self-willed, hard-edged, perverse, [and] indomitable.” In the presence of a tantrum, an onlooker could describe children as such. Otherwise, most people know that children are vulnerable and in need of various kinds of protection: love, guidance, sustenance and safety. The by-word contemporary to 2017 is that children are “resilient,” but in both descriptions there is hidden a commonality. In these ideas regarding the strength of children, the parent has an out for all their omissions, mistakes, and cruelties.
In the end, Munro allows for no such out.
We see that the constant fighting has had an effect on the eight year old. From the back seat of the car, she can hear something heating up between her parents, and she offers a diversion. She sings the nursery song “Four Little Ducks Went Out One Day,” a telling choice, in that with each verse, one less ducky comes home to momma. Thus the little girl attempts to a) charm and divert her parents, and b) comfort herself with the knowledge that if it ever gets toooooo bad, she could always run away.
We see that the role of women being taught by the marriage has also had its effect on her. When they play “Who am I?” this little girl assumes the alter ego of the dead “lady” deer they had seen lashed to a truck.
We see, finally, that these two parents are capable of making a mutually monstrous decision: because the girls seem to be very hot, they are allowed to bathe in a public swimming pool that is closed. The children are to be under the dubious protection of a teenager who is both eating her lunch and probably intending to make out with her boyfriend. The parents sit daydreaming in their car, while, out of sight, the little girls cool off. When the mother comes to her senses, rushes to the fence, and doesn’t see the three year old, the older daughter says she has “dis-a-peared.”
The near drowning is just averted when the father leaps over the fence.
It is probably twenty years later when the mother is telling us this story. She has begun her story with an ominous tale of a playmate of hers who drowned when she was little. She feels a lasting anger at the adults who were complicit in his death, the adults who turned a blind eye to the fact that his father was inadequate to the task of taking care of him, and had been inadequate ever since the mother had disappeared. Her childish “disgust” regarding the adults and their ineffectual and “bloated” power lingers with her even now.
Remembering her own daughter’s near death by drowning, she feels not disgust at herself, but a yearning for forgiveness. She says that she and her husband drove the girls away from the pool “trusting to be forgiven in time for everything . . .”
But Munro is not so kind. While the narrator admits that some of her actions were “flippant, arbitrary, careless, [or] callous,” she seems to defend herself by calling these choices “natural.” Munro lets the narrator say these were “mistakes.”
But Munro does not let it be said that these parental mistakes should be forgiven.
The narrator’s appeal to the reader for forgiveness for her parental lapses is undermined by the sense of falsehood that infuses the story telling. Andrew, the husband, takes a lot of pictures that support his sense of himself. He takes a picture of his wife and car. The car is new, and his wife, he says, looks like Jackie Kennedy. He wants this shiny and untarnished version of their life published; he wants these pictures sent out to their friends and relatives. But the pictures are a falsehood that papers over reality.
Falsehood is part of the wife’s version of herself as well: she and her friends not only want to think of their children as “indomitable,” they want to think of themselves as indomitable as well. Later, the mother’s need for forgiveness reveals the falsehood in her earlier assumptions.
Falsehood is part of the parents’ “bloated” sense of omnipotence. A comparative, poisonous omnipotence is reflected in the setting and title of the story. Miles City is the place where General Nelson Miles finally subjugated the Indians, although that subjugation had been preceded by Custer’s ignominious defeat at Little Bighorn. Thus the misuse of power by anyone, parent or government, is conflated, and the sense of useless death and subjugation is floated like fog throughout the story.
Falsehood bookends the whole narrative. At the beginning, the child feels disgust at the parents’ ineffectual power. At the end, the adult the child becomes feels no such disgust at herself. Instead, she feels a kind of weepy need for forgiveness.
The narrator, Munro has tried to make sure, is not to be trusted. At the same time, if the reader is a woman, Munro has made sure the reader also is implicated. The narrator seduces the reader with her tales of Andrew’s unjustified assumption of power within the marriage; by the end of the story, however, the reader is wondering at the narrator’s mistakes with her children, and questioning herself as well.
Are our mistakes with our children “natural,” as the narrator claims? Is our impulse to want to be forgiven by our children justified? Or is there a better way?
Early in the story, Munro makes a passing reference to the “Children’s Aid” that might have rescued the neglected boy before he drowned. The reference is in passing, and it is accompanied by a note of sarcasm. All the same, universal child care in Sweden and Denmark was already possible. The Kibbutz had designed its own utopian society around the most extreme universal child care. In Sweden, Israel, and Denmark, strides had been taken to improve child-raising and at the same time enrich, not diminish, the lives of women.
Whatever Munro’s intent, she is somewhat impatient with our desire to be forgiven our mistakes with our children. One could look at this story as an example of how not to go about having it all, as well as an example of the need for more than “in-name-only” Children’s Aid.
Forgiveness is not, in fact, what Munro is after. You can be assured of that by the way the plea is snuck in at the end. There is no real confession here, no actual self-examination that might warrant forgiveness. You can want it (forgiveness), but that doesn’t mean you get it or deserve it. What the story is aiming at more specifically is the examination of falsehood and the revelation of “bloated” power. To vaguely count on the forgiveness of our children for our sins and omissions is as misguided as deciding they are “omnipotent” or deciding that because we are unfairly subjugated, anything goes. In Munro, there is desire, and there is always consequence, but there are never any easy answers.