“The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love

Trevor

Before I met my wonderful wife in London, back when I was dating girls I’d never end up with, there were a few long-term relationships that, at the time, seemed to be transitioning to become “my life.” I remember one in particular whom I dated for a couple of years. She was a constant, central part of my life, and I included her in many potential futures. When that relationship started to come apart, a process that was much too slow, after a period of denial I started to fear but also hope for the day when enough time had passed that I didn’t know her anymore, and, heartbreakingly at the time, when I was indifferent to what was no more. It’s a strange thing when long-term relationships cease to be and each person goes their separate way, forging out of nothing a new concrete stream of events. It’s strange when paths converge again, and one realizes how different the life you have lived can be from another life you could have lived. Hopefully one feels, as I do, that providence intervened, that the real tragedy would have been if something diverted you from the life you’ve lived. Hopefully you feels you’ve escaped to a better life. How awful if one feels the opposite. How interesting when one doesn’t know.

While Alice Munro’s “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” is not simply about diverging paths, it’s the aspect that most stood out to me, only Munro’s story is much darker than my own. Betsy’s thoughts below showcase just how darkly the story can be interpreted, how blessed an escape may be, though I think the story has some beautiful ambiguity.

When the story begins, we meet Sam, an elderly man returning to Gallagher, a provincial Canadian town where he lived when he was seventeen in the 1930s. At the time, he and Edgar, his cousin, lived together in a boarding house while they attended business school. Sam and Edgar were inseparable, so much so that Munro even has them performing acrobatics as a nice way to show how much they functioned as one being. They had general plans for their future (who needs particulars when you’re seventeen?): going to Toronto, working together as acrobats on the street, becoming wealthy, getting away from the life they are currently living.

Though it’s a short story, Munro manages to pack in the textures of two time periods: the 1930s, a time when Sam and Edgar were together and had a lifetime of possibilities ahead of them; and the present day, after Sam and Edgar have spent decades apart, life almost over for each of them.

Why did they separate? Of course, it was inevitable that they should at some time in their life, but even Sam wonders why they separated as they did, at that particular moment . . . and the separation so permanent.

A girl at the boarding house entered their lives, a girl with her own hopes and dreams, named Callie. Callie also has her own disappointments, we glean, though nothing is brought quite to the surface. We simply know that she different, and that cannot but mean things have sometimes been hard. Callie is a couple of years older than the boys, though she is appearance similar to an adolescent boy. She’s small and lacks curves. Later, she fools the YMCA into letting her stay. At first, neither boy pays her much attention: she was a “little slavey, forever out of things, queer-looking, undersized, and compared to her they were in the mainstream, they were fortunate.”

For a time, Callie becomes a part of the life of both boys together. They go skating together at the Orange Street skating rink. They even — here’s how disturbed this tale can get — take turns having sex with her, a kind of experiment they’re all up for, with varying degrees of discomfort. She doesn’t seem to mind. It’s possible that, at 19 and staying in a boarding house, this is nothing particularly unique in her life. However, this is the beginning of what will eventually turn into a life-long separation for Sam and Edgar. All three run away to Toronto together, but Edgar makes the confusing decision to marry Callie. It seemed sudden to Sam, and inexplicable since to his knowledge Callie wasn’t pregnant or anything. So Callie and Edgar go back to Gallagher, only to see Sam again decades later upon his return.

In the meantime, Sam married, had a family, made money, and become a widower. When he gets back to Gallagher, he and Callie recognize each other, and while they reminisce, you can sense Sam sizing up the situation and finding it lacking. He is “learning of the things not to mention.” First and foremost, he cannot mention the past they spent together. His prior inseparable companion Edgar has been reduced through the years and a stroke to an old man (though still attractive) sitting in a chair. Or has he?

At first it may seem that Sam is the one who has triumphed in life (and a part of me believes this is the case). Sam wonders why Edgar married Callie, why he “went ahead and did what nobody was making him do, took what he had run away from.” The story’s final lines are from Callie, telling Sam that Edgar is happy. Is Callie right, or is she equivocating? Either way, “Edgar became a person [Sam] did not know.”

But it could be that Sam is the one who escaped into a lesser world, if one that felt more attractive to the seventeen-year-old back in the 1930s. Callie herself is wondering what Sam wants in coming back to Gallagher? What indeed? Does he feel he left a piece of him behind, that he lost something in his life? Or has he come back to visit and found out how fate has been kind to him. I believe that is what he’s questioning. He’s also questioning Edgar’s happiness, despite what Callie says. Life has moved on. He cannot know for sure whether he should feel any regret. At best he knows that when he was seventeen, with Edgar and Callie, they had a marvelous time together, and then life took off.

The moment of happiness he shared with them remained in his mind, but he never knew what to make of it. Do such moments really mean, as they seem to, that we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect? Do they shed such light before and after that all that has happened to us in our lives — or that we’ve made happen — can be dismissed?

I think that’s the heart of this story. A life of possibilities runs down one of many funnels to one point, and this is where we find Sam, wondering. Did Edgar live the better life? Did Sam? And what were the other possibilities?


Betsy

Munro’s “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” addresses betrayal and what you do with it after a terrific passage of time.

In addition, it is filled with detail about town life in provincial Canada in the 30’s: business school, boarding house, the prospects of farm boys, and those of foundlings. It has a delirious set piece regarding teen-aged acrobats — the daring, the grace, the teamwork. The bones of the story are these: two seventeen-year-old farm boys, Edgar and Sam, go to town to attend business school for a year. They put up lodgings in the attic of a mean boarding house, and they befriend a poor scallywag of a girl named Callie.

She’s older than they — 19 to their 17 — and she’s peculiar. She’s small and queerly made, and in addition, she loves to dress as a boy, and she gets away with it.

The key thing in this story, besides all the entertaining high-jinx, is that Sam, being inexperienced, gets it into his head that they should have sex with Callie. After all, she’s there, she’s the kind of person who is up for anything, and her social position is the bottom of the barrel. She’s a “foundling,” or perhaps she’s their landlady’s bastard daughter, and for sure she’s a “slavey” for her supper. She does all the heavy work at the boarding house, no quaver, no question.

So you have, tucked into a story of acrobatic ambitions, escapades at the skating rink, and slow progress at the business school, a classic story of sexual opportunism by unsupervised young men. It reminds me of the St. Paul’s rape case; it reminds me of Prep, the novel about sex in private boarding schools, and it reminds me of, naturally, Tess of the D’urbervilles. In all three cases the boys have the power, and the girls don’t seem to know what they’re getting into.

Except for this. It is possible that Callie is the real adventurer and the real opportunist. It’s possible she saw her chance with Edgar and grabbed it; it’s possible she’s the one who does all the taking advantage. She was older than he by two years, she was a town girl, no matter how poor, and she did live in a boarding house where she might have had plenty of opportunity for sexual experience.

The decisive thing regarding the possibility that she was the aggressor is that Edgar tried to run away from her.

Secondarily, having gotten discovered as not a boy upon arrival at the YMCA in Toronto, and having then gotten married to Edgar, it turned out she was not pregnant, and never would be.

Sam had gotten sick that first winter in town, and when he got better, he didn’t really seem himself, as if maybe he had suffered some kind of slight brain damage from his infection. We overhear Sam wondering, late in life, about Callie. “Perhaps she really was too small, or not developed in the usual way.” The story feels here as if it is verging on John Irving territory, as if it is ahead of its time, given its consideration of what Callie’s options are, if she isn’t an ordinary girl.

Somehow, maybe Callie realizes that Edgar is her chance. Regardless of what it was that was really wrong with her (and Munro makes it clear that it was something), she realizes she can have love, or companionship, or protection, and she goes for it. So while on the surface, it looked like Sam and Edgar were taking advantage of Callie, the more you think about it, it seems like Edgar got caught in a net that Callie had set.

We know there is something very strange about the whole thing because Sam has never been in touch with them, in all these years.

Weirdly, while it was Edgar, the handsome one, who got roped into marrying Callie, it was Sam who found her bravery thrilling. She had stolen the money to follow them to Toronto, and she had once again dressed as a boy to facilitate her escape. When Sam recognized her sitting opposite them on the train, decked out in her dirty boy’s disguise, he thought:

The moment was flooded with power, it seemed, and possibility.

And Sam acted on that. He got energy from it. He, too, seized power. He seized possibility. He was a great success. He made money. And Callie having stolen Edgar from him, he didn’t intend to ever share it. Under those circumstances, can you go home again? Sort of.

Sam, 69 and widowed, finally pays a visit on Callie and Edgar. Edgar is more handsome than ever and more damaged, having had a stroke a few years before. Callie stands her ground: she says, “He’s happy.”

Speaking of happiness, Sam wonders:

The moment of happiness he shared with them remained in his mind, but he never knew what to make of it. Do such moments really mean, as they seem to, that we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect? Do they shed such light before and after that all that has happened to us in our lives — or that we’ve made happen — can be dismissed?

The story is entertaining and it is strange. But I wonder how the story came to be. The description of the skating rink is so loving (with its guys who are the “rinky-dinks” and its hoisted moon) that I wonder if it was the skating rink that Munro found first, and then the boarding house, and then the characters with their topsy-turvy sex.

What you have to love about Munro is that power comes in all shapes and guises.

And you have to love her inquiry into the passage of time. Think of a moment from long ago when everything seemed possible. Think of how often you’ve thought of it and gotten strength from it — just as Sam has seemed to have done. But I do think Munro intends for us to also remember our brutality. That sometimes we just let things go. Even when we shouldn’t.

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By | 2017-08-03T17:13:32+00:00 May 19th, 2017|Categories: Alice Munro, Book Reviews|23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang May 19, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Alice Munro is peerless but this review is beautiful in itself!
    Thanks Trevor and Betsy!

  2. Trevor Berrett May 19, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks, Dennis! This one was another interesting case for me. I didn’t really like (or understand) the story the first time I read it and was prepared to just leave it as one of Munro’s lesser efforts. But I’ve learned that, while she does have lesser efforts, if I feel negative it’s usually because I’m missing something. It took me some time to get under the skin of this one, but once I did (I think) it really started to pay off!

  3. Harri T May 20, 2017 at 12:58 am

    In her 1994 Paris Review *Art of the Fiction’ interview Alice Munro mentions that this story is based on the anecdotes Munro´s husband Gerry Fremlin told about his childhood.

    Munro thinks that he must have expected them come out quite differently, because he did not like the story – ‘not one of your best’. Munro mentions “The Moon…” as a story she likes, but her husband not – that really was a direct question in the interview.
    Maybe A.M. herself was not very familiar with skating rinks but they were quite popular in Munro country, and ice rinks still are, ice-hockey the national sport. Many NHL-stars come from the neighborhood, like Wayne Gretzky,greatest of them all.

    It´s a beautiful story and unlike most of what she has written. Told peacefully and in great detail, full of langour and nostalgic. The two cousins live undernourished, almost in deprivation.
    It´s about class, about happiness, about vagueness of memory.
    Like in “Fits”, Munro also here emphasizes the vulnerability of the third-person narrative. There are so many things Sam cannot remember or understand or is unsure about. He tries to understand his past and stays longer than planned, still struggling with the questions of his life with Edgar and Callie,

    Like so many times before, Betsy´s analysis is a nail on the head.

    Douglas Gibson, the editor whose first Munro book was “The Progress of Love”, asks a question I cannot resist to repeat here: is the sexual encounter, referred by Callie as ‘that stupid business’, the least erotic three-way scene in literary history?

  4. Betsy May 20, 2017 at 9:25 am

    It’s been some time since I wrote this appreciation of “Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”. I am more and more interested in Munro’s terrific empathy for Callie – for her bravery and for her dilemma. The Intersex Society of America has a history of intersex on its website that gives Munro’s story context. (http://www.isna.org/faq/history)

    The article actually helps credit Munro with her remarkable insight and intelligence regarding the human condition, intersex not being a term in common usage until after Munro wrote this piece.

    What makes Munro so important is this combination: total refusal to adhere to dogma of any kind (regarding sex or anything else!) and an ease with this fact of life – that knowing is important, but what we know changes with time, and what we know is always limited by the mystery that constitutes being human.

  5. Betsy May 20, 2017 at 9:38 am

    Trevor! Your post begins with the very thing that brings me back and back and back to Munro. And that is, she helps me think about my life. What is it? that she allows you space for yourself? that her characters seem like selves of your own? that her worlds seem like your own world? that she gives so much space to the things we struggle with? (Loyalty, betrayal, and the necessity, above all, to just survive, even if it means jumping ship.)

  6. David May 20, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Betsy, I’m confused. From the initial discussion of the story there is the suggestion (through wearing male clothes and “passing” as male) that Callie might be transgender, but I did not get the sense from anything in either what you or Trevor wrote that there might be reason to think Callie is intersex. Being transgender is about psychological identity and being intersex about bodily identity, so they are very different things.
    .
    When reading the commentaries (I have not read the story) I was reminded of Munro’s famous “Boys and Girls” (which I first read in junior high school a very long time ago). There the main character is a girl who seems to clearly identify as a girl, but she wants to do the things that are traditionally only allowed for boys. Munro critiques the social construction of gender without questioning the gender identity of the character, a fairly conventional feminist critique of social roles. So with Callie I thought Munro might be thinking something similar – a girl who likes to be seen as a boy because of what it allows her to be able to do, not because she identifies as other than female. But the idea that Callie might be intersex is a whole different story. Especially given that she has sex with the two male characters, it would be odd if there were no specific commentary on Callie’s physical status. Did I miss something here?

  7. Trevor Berrett May 20, 2017 at 11:36 am

    I will have to look at the link myself. I didnt see anything in the story to suggest Callie was intersex or even transgender. Just boyish. I could have missed that whole thread!

  8. Betsy May 20, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    David – Welcome! thank you for your commentary. And your doubts! Several things.

    First: Munro hints at Callie being not quite right, or small, or or underdeveloped, and she also is adamant that despite being married since 20 or so, Callie has never had children. In addition, there is Sam’s doubt that his sex with her was successful, whatever he meant by that. Remember, these are virgin, provincial boys, so Callie would be able to put almost anything over on them. In addition, when Callie actually traps Edgar in her web, Edgar has suffered some kind of brain damage from the virus that sent him home.

    Second: Munro is often mysterious about things. Callie is a mystery. I understand that Munro is terrifically interested in gender assigned roles. I think this story goes in a slightly different direction. After all, the story is primarily about personal determination to be an actor in your own life. Sam simply admires Callie’s ability to do that.

    So, yes, I think that what you missed was the part about Callie wanted to be the captain of her own life.

    Third: Intersex is a physical condition which is, in itself, mysterious, and which occurs in degrees, one way or another. I don’t think it was even a term in any common usage when Munro was writing the piece. Mostly, in the twentieth century, the condition of being born intersex was deemed to be something, like cleft palate, that should be fixed

    Munro could have known about John Money, at Johns Hopkins, who was the pioneer in “fixing” intersex. The problem was, that it is easier to create a girl than a boy. If, and I only say if, Munro knew anything about this, she would have wondered about what happened when country children were not taken to Johns Hopkins. Callie was deemed a girl, but she easily passed as a boy. That could be, as you say, merely Callie assigning herself a role she was comfortable to play. Or it could have been more complex. Never doubt that Munro is anything but complex!!!

    In the nineties, things changed. Attitudes toward “fixing” people changed somewhat.

    Fourth, or First!!!: You have to read the story!!!! After that, get back to us!

  9. David May 20, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Thank you both. Betsy, you have convinced me. I’ll read the story and then check back with you again.

  10. betsy pelz May 22, 2017 at 6:40 am

    David – I am reading the Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro at the moment. All of the 10 essayists, to one degree or another, speak to the complexity of Munro.

    The last essay, by Helene Venturi, addresses Munro’s use of songs, ballads, and myth. This essay is startling and masterful. Beneath what appears to be an almost homespun but admittedly ironic narrative voice, Venturi maintains that Munro also builds a “clandestine” reality to challenge and engage the reader who is up to it.

    Venturi’s analysis of of Munro’s use of song, ballad and myth reveals a mind (in Munro) that is encyclopedic, lyric, ironic, and artful at the same time. Some readers could read Munro without catching any of her allusions; only the most erudite reader would catch them all.

    Somewhere Munro has said she spends months on a story and thinks a reader could spend quite a bit of time on the stories as well.

    So my reading into the story what is not explicitly stated is not the reverse of what Munro intended.

    I offer one other support regarding Callie’s possible intersex. Callie’s guardian (and slave-master) says that Callie was given to her. An intersex baby is one that might have been “given” away. That her guardian treats her as a slave gives both motive for running away and some explanation that the guardian does not see Callie as an equal.

  11. Harri T May 23, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    There´s nothing to rule out Callie´s intersexuality, not really anything to suggest it, but Betsy has a lot of suited indirect evidence. Betsy´s latest is a very good support, I like how you read the story!

    A.M. may well have heard about the Baltimore intersex fixing, as the media, NYTimes particularly, gave it publicity and presumably Canadian press was also up to date. The Johns Hopkins surgical procedures ended already before 1980, at a time when the treatment was still gaining ground all over the world.

    The main ‘enlightener’ about (then) hermaphrodites must during much of the 20th century have been books on ancient Greek and Roman culture, usually at least with one illustration of a beautiful lady (statue or wall painting) with male genitals – not a very typical intersexual. From 1950´s on the soft porn magazines took over the enlightening.

    Intersex is not very common, with an incidence of less than 2/1000 in most populations. In spite of that, the condition was well known in rural areas and small towns with a long history of home birth. New traveled quickly, whether clubfoot, cleft lip or unusual genitals,and the memory was long.
    I heard ‘the big boys’ discussing intersex features in a small town environment in the early 50’s, far earlier than I could really have understood anything about them.

    I think that Alice in Wingham and/or Gerald in Clinton may have heard about hermaphrodites already as teens. The anecdotes on which the story is based came from the husband. Perhaps there was no need for cultural, media or scientific influences, to know about the phenomenon.

  12. betsy pelz May 23, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    Harri, your discussion is exactly the sense of it I had.

  13. Margaret May 26, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    The quote that Betsy and Trevor both cited—I agree that it is some key to the story. What Sam seems to be pointing to is a moment suspended between two worlds, whether it’s between genders, childhood and adulthood, or socio-economics. In Sam’s case, his suspension in that moment is in a world without the latter. He hasn’t yet chosen money, convention, children and marriage.

    When Sam meets them later, Edgar and Callie remain suspended between childhood and adulthood, as Edgar is frozen in a happy time, where the past (and its attendant regrets about choices) doesn’t touch him, and Callie is unable to bear children (though she appears to have chosen her feminine side, “painted up… under a pinkish-blond wig.”) Edgar’s choice to live a life with Callie comes after their transformational sexual encounter—he becomes quite sick, his appearance changes, he no longer pursues the business education he sought. Now Edgar lives not necessarily in the present—only the present action of what’s in front of him, the television show. But he’s content in something available to him alongside the present–something like Munro suggests: that “we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect.” I have to wonder if Edgar’s stroke is emblematic of his not being able to bear his choice.

    Is it an act of mental gymnastics, like the boys’ stunts, to stay outside the norms of gender and economics? The fake moon—the ability to create our own illusions–begins early; that moon, however, takes a great deal of effort to pull off, and I liken it to Callie’s “lifetime of fairly successful efforts and calculations.”

  14. David May 26, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    Ok, I have read the story and given it a lot of thought. I should warn people at the start that this will be long and entirely about the issues of sexuality, sexual identity, and gender as they pertain to the story. I will be going over a number of passages in some detail. If that does not interest you, you probably should stop reading this comment now. You have been warned! Let’s begin.
    .
    In the first two paragraphs of the story we are introduced to the older Callie. She is described in ways that are unmistakably intended to indicate femininity. Twice she is associated with the colour pink. We are told about her “pinkish-blond wig” and the “jiggly balls of pink and white wool” on her sweater. Another feminine indicator is that she was “quite painted up”. We are also told she is reading a book called My Love Where the High Winds Blow by Veronica Gray. The book does not really exist, but from the title it sounds like a trashy romance novel of the type that is read more often by women than men. The one possible element of doubt in all that is the spelling of “blond”. “Blond” is the masculine spelling and “blonde” the feminine spelling. Munro’s use of the masculine spelling suggests that it is possible that the hairstyle of the wig is masculine. It’s even more interesting that the masculine “blond” is joined by a hyphen to the feminine colour “pinkish”. This could be done to subtly suggest a hyphenated duality of her gender. (By the way, I did look it up and in French the word “wig” is feminine, so Munro is not just going with a convention of referring to wigs as masculine. And when I googled “blond wig” it asked me if I really meant “blonde wig”, but not vice versa.)
    .
    The first specific description we get of Callie in the flashback to her youth is that when she was nineteen she could have passed for twelve. It’s hard to know what, if anything, this might indicate. On the one hand, someone her age who is FTM transgender and presenting as male tends to look much younger, so that could be what is being suggested. On the other hand, to say a nineteen year old female could pass for twelve might be a polite way of saying she is short, flat-chested, and doesn’t have curvy hips. But for someone who is intersex rather than female, it is more likely that at age nineteen Callie would be appear more masculine than like a younger girl. So I’m not sure what to make of this except that it seems a better fit to the idea that Callie is transgender than to the idea that she is intersex.
    .
    When the trio go to the skating rink, Callie wears boys’ clothes, climbs like boys do, and walks like a boy does. Munro describes them as “three boys” and the other two call Callie “Cal”. It could be that Callie is just a tomboy, although it is less usual for a tomboy to want to be thought of as actually a boy (and called by a boy’s name). It is more usual to just want to be accepted as equal to the boys and allowed to do the things boys do. So the more literal descriptions of Callie as a boy does suggest something more is going on here. The issue, however, is gender, not her sex. There is nothing about how she dresses and acts that says anything about her genetic anatomy, so there is really nothing here to lead us to think that she is intersex rather than being transgender and biologically female, as most MTF transgender people are.
    .
    When Sam and Edgar discuss having sex with females, they literally discuss everyone before Edgar finally mentions Callie. It’s not that they see her as a sister or a friend so they don’t consider her sooner. The suggestion is that it is because they do not really see her as a girl. Sam does not resist when they talk about sex with teachers like “manish-looking Miss Lewisohn” or several “grotesque” choices. But when it comes to Callie, “the fact that she, too, was female came to [Sam] as an embarrassment. You would think he had discovered something disgusting and pitiable about himself.” Here it seems the fact they normally don’t think of Callie’s as female might call into question their own sexuality. Why would they want to have sex with Callie if they think of her more as a boy than a girl? The question of sexual identity takes a bit of a turn here. When they are working on persuading her to agree to having sex with them, they “didn’t think of stroking or flattering her as if she were a girl.” Here again Munro seems to be confirming her identity as male and their acceptance of that. It is also worth noting that Edgar seems more up for having sex with Callie and Sam needs some convincing, so it might be an indication that thinking of her as a boy is more of a dealbreaker for Sam than it is for Edgar.
    .
    When the trio do get down to doing the “stupid business”, Callie seems to have no apprehension about them seeing her body. We get a description of how Edgar saw her genital area, and there is no suggestion that anything is unusual there. If she were intersex and not had any surgical alteration then surely she would not be so carefree about the boys seeing her naked and Edgar might have seen some indication of male genitalia. But maybe Callie was surgically altered at birth. This would explain her reaction and what Edgar did (or didn’t) see. But remember that Callie was probably born around 1915, well over a decade before any such surgical procedures had even been attempted. So if Callie were born intersex, she would still have the genitals she was born with. The sex scene seems to contradict the possibility that she is intersex.
    .
    When Edgar begins to worry that Callie is pregnant, Sam’s first response is “She isn’t old enough”, but then he remembers her real age. Earlier, when they were trying to persuade her to have sex with them we are told “they must have known, by then, her real age, but they still treated her as if she were an imp to be cajoled”. It seems odd this repeated forgetting her age, but it does reinforce the idea that they seem to see her as a younger boy, not an older girl. And again, when Callie joins the boys on the train, we get two paragraphs reminding us that Callie is a boy. The word “boy” is used four times in just the first of those paragraphs. The realization that Callie is the boy who sat down with them is one that comes to them gradually, perhaps symbolizing the gradual understanding they came to that Callie was a boy, not a girl, after all.
    .
    There are a couple of references in the story to Edgar and figure skating. When they are skating at the Orange Street rink we are told that he was “not so ruthless a racer – he could have done fancy skating, if boys did it then.” So there is a hint there that Edgar is not like the other boys and has some interest in defying gender stereotypes. Near the end of the story, the older Edgar watches figure skating on television. “He smiles as he watches the skaters in their twinkly outfits.” These two passages, however brief and general, seem to suggest something more feminine and less masculine about Edgar.
    .
    Finally, we get a brief discussion of Edgar and Callie’s wedding picture. Sam realizes that the picture was not taken on the actual wedding day and with them not wearing their actual wedding clothes. The idea that the picture is a false record of their wedding suggests that perhaps their marriage was, in some sense, not a real marriage at all either.
    .
    So looking at all this evidence I wonder what, if anything, it all adds up to. I still think that Munro could be just presenting characters who, in various ways, challenge traditional gender roles and that it’s nothing more than that. But if there is something more it seems to me that it might be this: Callie is transgender, explaining why she (he) so often dressed, moved, and acted like a boy and was seen, even by Sam and Edgar, as a boy. Edgar is gay. Suggesting that he and Sam have sex with Callie is the closest he can come to expressing his sexual interest in boys. During the time when Edgar was sick and missed school, it is possible that he and Callie developed a closer bond and a closer personal connection due to their different, but very socially unacceptable natures. When Sam and Edgar leave town, Callie comes after them because she (he) needs Edgar. They decide to get married not because they have to, but because they need each other. Their marriage is not a “real” one in the traditional sense. It is one of close companionship, friendship, and mutual understanding based on their identities. There is a love between them, but not a romantic love. This would also explain why they never had children. That’s not the kind of family they were.
    .
    I don’t claim that this is what Munro was thinking when she wrote the story or even that it is the best way to read it. But if the issues of sexuality, sexual identity, and gender are viewed as significant to the story, it seems to me that this is the best way to understand it. There is a lot about the story that does not make sense to me (like why Miss Kernaghan makes up the story she does about Callie’s birth and why she tells it to the boys), so I am not confident about this reading. I am fairly confident that it is at least consistent with everything that is in the story and the idea that Callie is intersex is not clearly consistent, but beyond that I do think this is just speculation.

  15. Betsy May 27, 2017 at 9:51 am

    David! Thank you for the time – time – time you took with this! Such a wonderful close exploration. Throw me into that briar patch. Have printed out your commentary (all 7 pages!). I shall just react as I read and thank you effusively ahead of time for the conversation and your insights:.

    1. Callie’s pink wig is jarring; it is also an element of costume. Munro is continually interested in actors themselves and in situations that require people to “act the part”.

    2. I am somewhat mesmerized by “the jiggly balls” and what this phrase might mean to Munro.

    3.Hyphens & gendered words & your generous discussion of “pinkish-blond wig” – I love this. Munro is nothing if not precise, encyclopedic, formidable and a puzzler. I am with you here, even though many readers would dis-believe a woman who writes about women could be so ….. puzzle-y. But this is a descendant (no matter how unwilling) of Joyce – the puzzler extreme. Crossword puzzles and word puzzles appear in various Munro stories.

    4. FTM transgender (I am so provincial (or sleepy) that I have not yet made it to Acronyms and have to look it up: female to male.

    5. You remark: “I’m not sure what to make of this…” Welcome to Munro country. I do believe that Munro is just absolute in her take on the world – that there is so much we cannot perceive, or that what we perceive changes over time. Nevertheless, she always tries to have her narrators attempt to accurately express what they perceive at the time, but they are often compelled to return to these memories. Revisiting the truth is important to Munro.

    6. Your exploration of whether Callie’s size makes her transgender or intersex ends in qualification, and that seems appropriate, given that Sam himself was never sure of what it was he had encountered in Callie.

    7. “The issue, however, is gender, not sex…” I think you are right on there. The issue is gender (roles), opportunity, non-limiting self-development. In this realm is the exploration the story makes of slavery. It seems obvious that Callie is Mrs. Kernaghan’s slave. Yet Callie herself protests she’s no “slavey” – she is a competitor, she is self-determining, and she flows between the role of girl and the role of boy. This seems to me part of the gender discussion – that women are, in Munro, often in the seeming situation of slaves. So why – in the end, does Callie choose the role of wife? Is it because she is able to see this role as freeing? As empowering?

    Munro herself was a housewife for most of her life, and yet was wonderfully able to empower herself within that role.

    8. I agree that the key thing (re intersex) is that Callie was born in 1915. She was at 19 what she was at birth. There could have been no surgery, if intersex was what she was.

    9. Regarding what Sam and Edgar learn of Callie’s physical body, Munro is cagey. Sam and Edgar are both, most likely, virgins. They don’t actually know, from experience, what they are looking for. She refuses to reveal her breasts. Despite all their “jabbing and prodding” there is no blood. They are not clear as to whether she has opened her legs. Sam “still wasn’t sure he had found out what girls were like.” There is the suggestion that she does not have a vagina.

    What is more important, however, is Sam’s key problem: that he did not know and had not found out “what girls were like.” Deep; resourceful; determined; imaginative….

    But in fact, Sam does know what Callie is like: “That was the secret of Callie — she would never say that anything was too much for her.”

    10. You observe: “They seem to see her as a younger boy, not an older girl.” And you note that the word boy is used 4 times. I’m with you on the importance of that.

    11. I like very much the delicacy you use in describing Edgar as him having “something more feminine and less masculine.” Again, I think it is the revulsion that Munro has to assigned gender roles that is ultimately important.

    12. Love your remarks about the wedding picture – about it suggesting a duality. Is Munro is wondering just what a “real marriage” is anyway? Munro says of her own father that he was happier with his second wife – the farm woman who was heartily sexual as opposed to his first wife, who was uncomfortable with sex. Munro explores all kinds of marriages. The marriages that truly upset her are the ones where one of the spouses is trapped by the other.

    13. And in that regard: you observe that Edgar and Callie’s marriage is one of “close companionship,, friendship, and mutual understanding”.

    14. As to why they never had children – Munro is not clear. Perhaps they never had sex. Perhaps Callie did not have a vagina. Perhaps she did not have ovaries. Perhaps they had sex, but it was a sexual experience that was a variety of sexual experience. Nothing is clear.

    15. I agree wholeheartedly with your emphasis that the story is interested in gender role. In general, I feel that Munro is interested in how people free themselves of the trap of assigned gender roles.

    16. Re Callie’s birth stories: at least one of them is a lie. Is it the townspeople’s lie? Is it that Callie is K’s own daughter but not by the Bible salesman? Or is it M K’s detailed and gothic story?

    Munro’s narrator says: “Callie, supposedly a foundling, was said by some to Miss Kernaghan’s own daughter.” ….But ….”Miss Kernaghan told lies not to fool people but to stump them”….the townspeople joked that “Callie was supposed to be the child of a Bible salesman, a boarder.”….then Miss Kernaghan tells her story….She was at the “Queen’s Hotel” and 3 people appear: a driver, a pregnant woman and her husband…..the woman who gave birth to Callie and died: she “was dead but she was still bleeding.”….(the innkeeper’s dog is at the blood) …

    I notice that at first I thought that Miss K’s companion was a man – the name being Louie. Then, at the end, I notice that although Louie is the one who wants the baby and is “fond” of her, she leaves it behind. “So much for fond,” says Miss K.

    I notice that Callie is born at an inn ~ a variety of Jesus figure.

    I notice that regardless of all the stories, Callie is Miss Kernaghan’s responsibility, and Miss Kernaghan is in the role of Mother. But the truth is, regardless of how Miss K came to be Callie’s mother, this is a mother who never wanted the child..Callie is not her child but her “slavey”, until she escapes.

    17. Your conclusion, David, if I understand you properly, is: “If the issues of sexuality, sexuality, and gender are viewed as significant to the story, …this is the best way to understand it.”

    “This” being: first a concern with assigned gender roles; and second, Callie being transgender.

    18: David, you mention that confusion is what the story makes you feel, and that speculation is what Munro forces upon you. Munro thus makes of you a thinking reader and to a degree, a co-writer. I think this is what she wants of you.

    19. As to the truth of Callie’s birth:

    Miss Kernaghan is an inveterate liar who lies at ease: she says the cocoa that’s made with water is made entirely with milk. When boarders complain they were cold the night before, she says she had “a roaring fire going.” She was a “flashy” liar who could bully her boarders into submission.

    This marks the story she tells about Callie’s birth as just that: a story. She deflects attention away from the real problem – that she, Miss K, is a monstrous mother. she is the true monstrosity.

    20. As to intersex:

    I am comfortable with how doubtful the intersex interpretation seems.

    and yet: Munro had a child who died at birth. Munro writes about children who are marked by congenital deficiencies and who are cast off by either mothers or society or both (“Dance of the Happy Shades” being the one that is most famous).

    That Callie has been marked by something since birth is evident to me from two things:
    one that she is so conspicuously “undersize” and by the fact that her “mother” has rejected her.

    But of course! You are right! that Munro’s main concern is assigned gender role, and that whatever Callie’s sex actually is, Munro’s main concern is freedom, self-actualization, and roles in life that are, in the end, self-assigned.

    21. I have often thought that Munro is in conversation with other writers. In this case, it is John Irving’s “Garp”, which was published in 1978. Orange Street Skating rink was published in 1986 in the New Yorker.

    I, of course, am influenced by Jeffrey Eugenides “Middlesex” which was published in 1982.

  16. Betsy May 27, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Margaret – love your comment about mental gymnastics being required when faced with a world that forces people into rigid and gendered roles.

    Also loved your comment about the story portraying Sam at a moment when he poised between a variety of pairs of worlds.

  17. Betsy May 27, 2017 at 10:03 am

    Trevor: I apologize for the numerous typos I failed to correct. The beauty of this blog deserves better.

  18. David May 27, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    Betsy, thanks for the long reply. I enjoyed it. I’ll comment on just three points. First, I was so caught up in the interpretation of the colour of the “jiggly balls” of wool it did not occur to me that they might stand symbolically as artificial testicles, suggesting issues of gender and false public ways of demonstrating it.
    .
    Secondly, I had thought to comment before about the title of the story. I am not sure why Munro thought the moon in the rink was a significant enough symbol to use it for the title, but again the idea that it is an artificial representation of the real moon could have something to do with it. I wondered of the idea of how the moon can be used in navigation and the image of the kids skating in circles under it might be meant as a prominent metaphor. But I also wondered about the street name itself. Maybe it was just the name of a real street and Munro liked it. But your mention of authors who might have influenced her reminded me that Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson was published in 1985, almost exactly a year before this story appeared in The New Yorker. I wonder if the use of “orange” in the title is meant as an oblique reference to that book as well.
    .
    Thirdly, you said, “Munro thus makes of you a thinking reader and to a degree, a co-writer”. Thinking reader is fine with me, but co-writer goes too far. I used the jigsaw puzzle metaphor in discussing both of the two recent stories by Yiyun Li. For “On The Street Where You Live” I said it ultimately seemed like we got a bunch of pieces from several different puzzles, so it never came together as a single complete story. For “A Small Flame” I said it seemed like this time the pieces were all from the same puzzle, but many were missing. Give me a very complicated puzzle that is difficult to solve, but don’t give me one that cannot be solved because pieces are missing. Readers who want to be invited in as co-writers tend to be people who want to show off how clever they think they are. Authors who leave gaps that readers need to fill in either don’t really have complete ideas they want to share or are afraid to give an audience a full picture they might not like. They think it’s safer to let the audience finish the story for them. So stories that are not complete puzzles generally score poorly with me. I don’t know if this story really should fall in that category or not, but I generally find when I read Munro that I am unsure why she thought the story was worth telling. She clearly has great talent as a writer, but I generally don’t really enjoy reading her.

  19. Harri T May 28, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    If “Middlesex” would have been published in 1982, it´s influence on Munro´s story would be probable. The correct year is 2002.

  20. betsy pelz May 28, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    Harri – thank you for the correction! I am embarrassed to have typoed that. I actually looked it up and then I was tired and miss typed it. So glad you caught me. I knew that it was later – but that’s a bad glitch not to have caught myself – Thanks.

  21. betsy pelz May 28, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    David –

    Thought your discussion of the title was fruitful. Really!

    About Alice: a hundred different women would give you a hundred different answers as to why Alice is important.

    One is she catches the 50’s trap that men set for women,
    and she catches the way women are complicit in accepting that trap.
    She holds no one unaccountable.

    She’s great on the reality that some people, especially children and disabled people
    are abused by others.

    She’s funny.

    She’s a feminist who in not an ideologue;
    she’s a feminist who holds women responsible for the way they deceive themselves.

    She is interested in guilt and penance.

    She is interested in how a person makes an artist’s life actually work.

    She is interested in how people deceive themselves.

    As for me, she is a connection for me to my mother,
    and I think many women find her complex take on mothers and daughters important.

    She’s interested in memory, and she’s especially interested in the
    way we use memory to review things and perhpas
    understand them more deeply.

    And a lot more.

    She’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
    Christian Lorentzen panned her.

    But as for me, I’m a fan.
    I like the indeterminacy.
    And so much else.
    There’s something wise about her reserve.
    I feel safe in her presence, like she won’t mislead me.
    She’s the opposite of Ayn Rand.

    but I do not recommend her to my husband.
    She doesn’t speak his language.
    He’s more of an Elmore Leonard, Bernard Cornwell guy.

    There’s more I want to say, David, about the reader being
    part of the writing process.

    but I have to cook dinner.
    Tomorrow.

  22. betsy pelz May 29, 2017 at 5:46 am

    David – about your carefully considered discussion of whether Alice Munro invites the reader to participate in the writing of her stories:

    You remark: “Readers who want to be invited in as co-writers tend to be people who want to show off how clever they think they are.”

    Maybe. But then there are people like me who well may want to be considered clever, but actually have a deeper interest in the author. Alice Munro’s style of writing has several/many aspects. One is that she layers characters one against another, stories one against another, situations one against another, truths one against another, such that the reader is left to draw their own conclusions. If you are like me, the only satisfactory way to respond to one of her stories is to write about it, write about my take on it, write about my questions, write about what the story means to me. So I don’t think I write primarily for the purpose of showing off. I write primarily for myself: to save the experience of reading the story, to identify what in it matters to me, to sort out what I do not know, to treasure what strikes me deeply.

    You also remark: “Authors who leave gaps that readers need to fill in either don’t really have complete ideas they want to share or are afraid to give an audience a full picture they might not like. ”

    This I must disagree with. Munro is neither afraid nor is she incomplete. She shares her vision of life almost fearlessly, given that she wrote for her entire life, steadily, steadily, steadily, on topics personal to her that would strike fear into any ordinary woman’s heart (incest, abortion, disability, madness, murder, abuse, betrayal and self delusion…).

    As for being incomplete, I cannot charge her vast body of work with anything but completion. Her attitude, over and over, is that we necessarily, being human, have an incomplete perception of the truth, although with care, by paying attention, we may deepen what we know, and that ability to deepen what we know may take central importance in our lives, may play a role religion used to play. Explanation, fixed belief, dogma, ideology, or, for instance, the corset of gender roles that society imposes, are all up for question, however.

    Munro has complete ideas regarding assigned gender roles, marriage, sex, sexuality, motherhood, religion, education, psychology, self-determination, sorrow, redemption, the uses of memory, and more. Part of her “complete” idea is that there are a lot of ways life skins a cat. The manner of the expression of these ideas is to often present the differing realities that these take in different people’s lives. Her point, I think, is that for different people, forces of life play out differently and have different effects and importance.

    She leaves it to the reader to “write” themselves into the story – to compare their own experience to that of the characters, to judge for themselves what relationship these differing situations have for the reader. Munro has said that she early on saw herself as an outsider. One of the things she does is provide a “big sky” vision of life, and one of the things her fans may like is how this vision has room to include all types, even them.

    I will admit, though, she’s tough on men. But she’s also tough on women.

    Her style is that she writes in disjunctive sections, mimicking, in a way, the way the mind jumps around, or flashes around. She leaves the reader to build their web of connections between the disparate sections, much as a person is left to build a web of meaning around the disparate events that get left in memory.

    So this is very general. You could respond you want these ideas in relation to one particular story. I would just remark that Sam, Callie, and Edgar (as well as Miss K.) present rich, differing ideas about sexuality, marriage, motherhood, self-determination, artistry, I am left to figure out where I fit in, or what I think of them. So I’m no outsider in her world.

    Is her work complete enough for you? Maybe not. Is it complete enough for me? Maybe so, except that I would love to have years more of it.

    PS The title appears to encompass differing and opposed truths: the impassioned (and possibly impossibly rigid) beliefs of the Protestant Scotch Irish who are the descendants of the “Orangemen” of 1795; the fact that the name “Orange” is preserved in the place names of everywhere these people settled – thus indicating a state of mind; the skating rink, which represents skill and work and fun and determination and youth; the “moon” which represents art, or represents fake, depending on how you look at it. The rigidity represented by the Orangemen confronts the delightful fakery of the artificial moon; the Orangemen also stand opposed to a life of art; fun also stands opposed to art, given that it would distract from the practice of the skill. And more. Just in the title. There’s also the history, the death and destruction.

    PPS I love the fun of the place – its other-worldliness – its rinky-dinks.

    But I will yield to you the last word. This week, despite my age, is full of obligation. I look forward to reading whatever you will respond! But have no time to write back. So you will have the last word – as do all of Alice’s readers.

  23. David May 29, 2017 at 10:25 am

    Betsy, thanks again. As you have ceded the last word to me, I will take that responsibility seriously and make this as positive a contribution as I can.
    .
    My mother’s mother was a school teacher (long since retired by the time I met her) and a voracious reader. Alice Munro was her favourite author. She lived the second half of her life in Victoria, BC, and Munro’s Books was her favourite bookstore. My mother grew up in small towns in British Columbia in the 1940s and 1950s. Whenever I read Muno I always feel the connection to both of them, especially my mother. When I read Munro I always feel like I am getting an authentic view into the world that my mother lived and grew up in. Beyond that, I also feel like Munro gives me a better sense of what my country was like a generation before I came along. When she writes about skating rinks in a small town and the Canadian Tire store or, as she did in “Jesse and Meribeth”, she mentions Eatons, Simpsons, Kraft Dinner, and the difference between people who say “supper” and those who say “dinner” – with all of these she mentions things that have a very important place in the Canadian identity. There is always something of value in what she writes as a window onto the history both of the place where I grew up and live and the world my mother and grandmother lived in. These reasons, in addition to the fact that Munro clearly has talent as a writer are reasons I keep coming back and trying her again. But other than “Boys and Girls”, the first of her stories I read, I have never really found a story of hers that has measured up to my hopes and expectations of her. But every now and then I give her a try again.
    .
    I am not convinced that Munro’s stories are incomplete and need the reader to finish them for her. If they are I would certainly agree it is not due to fear on her part. Sometimes I think it is a case of someone who has just left out too many pieces. She wants us to figure out some of what is going on and its significance on our own, but has made the puzzle too difficult to solve. The best murder mystery stories are ones where when you are given the solution you (1) have not already figured it out on your own (2) realize that it is the only satisfactory solution and (3) also realize that you were given enough information to figure it out, but just never did. It’s a hard trick to pull off. With Munro (although obviously she isn’t writing murder mysteries) I often think the problem is she does not quite pull off (3) and never explicitly reveals the full story to the reader. Intentionally leaving the stories for the reader to complete would be to say “here are some materials. I don’t know what to make with them. I hope you can figure something out.” But then if you build a table and I build a bookcase we end up in very different places. With a story, it would be as if we were not even reading the same story at all. She’s too good a writer to be doing that.
    .
    A story like “Jesse and Meribeth” can be instructive about how I see a lot of Munro’s work. She originally submitted it to The New Yorker and it was rejected. The fiction editor at the time, Charles McGrath, said, “Though it’s all handled with subtlety and dispatch, we couldn’t help feeling that the substance of the story never really measured up to her skill in presenting it.” A couple of years later she described her own writing saying of her stories, “They are not bad. I am feeling rather happy – or content – about my life but doubtful about my writing. I want some kind of purity. Instead I’ve got a lot of technique.” “Jesse and Meribeth”, after being rejected by The New Yorker was then submitted to Atlantic Monthly, which also rejected it. It finally was published by Mademoiselle under the title “Secrets Between Friends”. When I read Munro I often feel like there is enough technique there and the attempt to get to something profound that I should take her work very seriously, but in the end the story does not go where it might seem to want to be headed. So it ends up being like a story in a third-rate magazine with a schlock fiction title.
    .
    There are some authors I read and think, “this is awful. I don’t want to read any more from this person” (I see … ahem … Curtis Sittenfeld has a story in the issue of The New Yorker that was just published today). There are others I read and think, “this person is good, but this is not for me” (Tessa Hadley is probably in that category for me). But with Munro I always think “maybe I am just missing something and I’ll get it the next time I read her.” So I am always happy to try her again, even if the results are never quite what I hope they would be. Maybe the next one will have the key that unlocks Munro to me. Or maybe it will be the one after that….

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