“Eskimo”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love

Trevor

While many of Munro’s stories stay focused on the experiences of one character and that character’s thoughts, I don’t think we’ve come across one where much of the story is that character’s inventions and fantasies. That character is a middle-aged woman named Mary Jo. She is on a plane taking her to her winter holiday destination: Tahiti. The entire story takes place on one leg of the flight from Vancouver to Hawaii. The story itself begins while the passengers are boarding the plane, and the first sentence is the beginning of an invented conversation Mary Jo has with her employer and lover, Dr. Streeter:

Mary Jo can hear what Dr. Streeter would have to say.

Regular little United Nations back here.

Mary Jo, knowing how to handle him, would remark that there was always first class.

Ah, Mary Jo! We may not recognize it at the very beginning of “Eskimo,” but this kind of imagined conversation is how Mary Jo comforts herself. Presumably, as the plane fills up with unfamiliar faces from unfamiliar cultures, Mary Jo starts to feel nervous. Let’s bring in Dr. Streeter, whom Mary Jo knows “how to handle.” Her confidence here is based on the fact that their employee/employer relationship as well as their affair has endured a decade. This trip to Tahiti is his Christmas gift to Mary Jo.

It is entirely appropriate for us at this time to wonder, then, just where Dr. Streeter is. Oh, and why does she call him Dr. Streeter (we never do learn his first name)? From this early stage in the story, we see many things that Mary Jo cannot — or will not — see. Munro is not her usual subtle self in this story, laying it on a bit thick, not that that’s a bad thing per se. Indeed, it’s enlightening to watch Mary Jo maneuver around unpleasant messages in Dr. Streeter’s behavior, like that he always closes his eyes during sex:

Later she learned that he always closed his eyes. He doesn’t want to be reminded of himself at such times, and probably not of her, either. His is a fierce but solitary relish.

Mary Jo is also rather confident about Dr. Streeter’s relationship with his wife. It’s an unhappy marriage, the wife is a shrew, and both are better of staying away from each other. She sees herself as Dr. Streeter’s true love, a respite from the hard life he’s enduring:

Their holidays — and his holidays alone, usually fishing trips — are always expensive, and seem to Mary Jo ritualized and burdensome. His house, too, his social life and family life — it’s all like that, she thinks, all prescribed, bleak, and costly.

It’s notable that Munro is explicit that this is how it “seems” to Mary Jo, what “she thinks.” She may be right. Or maybe Dr. Streeter is lying to her. Or maybe he’s saying nothing at all, and this is what she does to stave off what she doesn’t want to acknowledge. She finds great comfort in her routine life and in the narrative she has composed. This trip to Tahiti is, in fact, a kind of crisis. She doesn’t want to go (showing how little Dr. Streeter knows her or cared to find out what type of holiday she’d like), and the plane is taking her farther and farther from her home, “its place of habitual attachment and rest.”

As Mary Jo tries to settle in, though, another minor crisis arises: a loud man and woman come to sit close to her. The man is older, and it’s quite clear that he considers himself above the woman he’s with. Mary Jo unfavorably compare the man to Dr. Streeter and then immediately begins to invent a story to make sense of their strangeness. They must be from Afghanistan. This must be a Khan and this must be his favored wife. Munro explicitly states that “Mary Jo feels cheered up by her own invention.” The necessity for invention continues when the couple argues and the woman comes to sit right next to Mary Jo. The woman shocks Mary Jo by saying she’s Eskimo and the man is Metis, and she’s only 16 — please don’t tell anyone.

First, Mary Jo thinks the woman — now just a girl — must be desperately in need of assistance, some protector against this brutish man obviously taking advantage and possibly breaking the law. But as the plan ride continues and things happen, Mary Jo is forced to confront her ignorance: perhaps there are no problems here between this couple. In a surreal moment, Mary Jo cannot help but watch as they kiss and make up, causing revulsion and desire that she recognizes in her feelings toward Dr. Streeter. And what does Mary Jo do?

She sets about deliberately to calm herself down.

It becomes clear, then, that Mary Jo know a lot more than she allows herself to acknowledge. It’s perhaps not Munro’s strongest, most subtle story, but it’s still a great look at another aspect of “story telling,” in this case stories that cover and obscure things we wish were not there. And I love Munro’s coda:

This is the beginning of her holiday.


Betsy

In her review of Munro’s short story collection The Progress of Love in the New York Times (September 14, 1986), Joyce Carol Oates remarks about “Eskimo”:

So thinly executed is ”Eskimo” that it reads like an early draft of a typically rich, layered, provocative Munro story: its male protagonist is offstage, its female protagonist senses, or imagines, a psychic kinship with a young Eskimo girl she tries to befriend on an airplane flight, but their encounter comes to nothing and the story dissolves in a self-consciously symbolic dream.

In writing these essays about the stories of Alice Munro, I rarely read what others have to say about them. If that sounds either provincial or arrogant or both, I would make this argument. Munro has spent hours and hours over a period of weeks and even months to write each story. I owe it to her to make my first encounter with her my own, as much as is possible. Later, when I’ve read all the stories, and when I have tried to make an honest sense of the whole, then I hope to read what other people have to say. (But I have to admit I couldn’t resist clicking on this Oates piece when I encountered it while searching for a story publication date.)

My goal in the meantime is to be as present to Munro herself as possible. In that regard, I am always interested in what Munro herself has had to say.

Here, for instance, in an interview with Lori Miller that appeared at the same time as the Oates review, Munro says about her short stories: “I like to have things going on at a lot of levels.”

There are clearly levels in “Eskimo”: the very successful cardiologist is surrounded by women — his wife, his daughter, and his mistress/nurse, all of whom live off his money in one way or other. In contrast, while on her trip to Tahiti, the mistress/nurse runs into an Eskimo child-slave who has gotten attached to a mixed race brute with money. There is an odd recurrence regarding teeth: the mistress/nurse has her teeth fixed, and the cardiologist likes the braces, maybe likes the way they diminish her; the Eskimo child/slave is missing her front teeth, as if they had been knocked out.

Even with these layers, “Eskimo,” as Oates proposes, seems incomplete. Munro has written at other times about the requirements of being a mistress or a kept woman. “Postcard,” for instance, is acid regarding the blindness and essential selfishness of the mistress in question. In “Eskimo,” however, the revelations are neither as vivid or as indicting, and the twin story of the Native American child-slave does not work out to be revealing enough, either regarding  the Eskimo herself or as counterpoint to Mary Jo’s story.

Oates remarks early in her review that:

Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses — one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment. The one, practiced most scrupulously, yields ever briefer and ever more abstract or parablelike fictions; the other, of course, yields the novel or the epic.

In contrast to the obliquely told story that is a gem of “artful omission,” “Eskimo” seems, as Oates says, “thinly executed,” or “an early draft.”

Except for the doctor’s wife, the story is blurry. The doctor’s wife, however, is delicious. She is getting a Ph.D, she a fan of an Irish poet, she is out every night, she is a heavy drinker, she seems to be living off a husband she thinks not much of, and she’s the mother of a parasitical daughter.

In contrast, the mistress/nurse prefers motionlessness. She adores the doctor and idealizes him, even though he does not seem to return the favor. The mistress/nurse’s essential self-negation creates an emptiness that is boring. I think the story is an attempt to portray an empty woman confronting herself in a nightmare, but she seems past learning anything. And while that is the point, it is not a satisfying read.

Curiously, in the next story in The Progress of Love, “A Queer Streak,” Violet is both someone who is self-sacrificing and also a mistress, but she seems a woman completely in control of her own fate. Her self-sacrifice is profound and requires great strength and immense self-sufficiency; in addition, her choice to be a loving mistress seems brave, given society, and seems giving, in that the love-match appears to be one of equals, and  something she is not doing for the money.

My daughter once wrote a story starring a teenager who incidentally had a little brother, and much to her consternation, her writing class commented, “More little brother!”

Similarly, the character I’d rather get to know is the monstrous wife (monstrous from the servant-mistress’s point of view, and perhaps really monstrous, in reality). At least she is doing something. And I would like to know more about the drinking — although Munro deals very little with drinking. I am struggling to retrieve stories of hers that use alcohol in any meaningful way.

As for the mistress/nurse, there’s not enough inner life, or not enough evil, or not enough that’s not been frozen, for the reader to invest in. (In this way, she seems similar to Peg in “Fits.”) One of the small things that interests me the most in this story is the difficulty the mistress/nurse has identifying the “Eskimo” girl. The girl self-identifies as Eskimo, but Mary Jo thinks the word in use now is Inuit. She wonders why the girl doesn’t know this. It is as if the point of the story is, in actuality, the difficulty we have in being accurate in knowing or naming ourselves.

As I look for this Inuit citation in the story, I notice that the Eskimo girl protests: “I am not. Drunk.” She also protests to the Metis man, “You can’t boss me. . . . You’re not my father.”

She seems to have mistaken the real situation. It’s not that he is behaving as if he were her father. It’s that he’s the one with the money. He can be as brutal or as distant or as vicious as he wants — he’s the one with the money. Why is she there? The money. How can she get out? Not revealed — although being drunk doesn’t help. Weirdly, the Eskimo girl begs Mary Jo not to tell anyone she is drunk, as if that would wreck her present arrangement, or as if she really is a child in need of protection.

The story seems to be asking the same question of the other women. Why are they there? The money. What has the money done for them? Made children of them. How can they get out? Not clear, although being drunk doesn’t help any of them.

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By | 2017-08-03T17:12:29+00:00 June 2nd, 2017|Categories: Alice Munro, Book Reviews|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. David June 4, 2017 at 9:51 am

    When we were discussing “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” I told Betsy that I wasn’t sure if I was going to read “Eskimo”. I decided I would read it for a reason I will discuss in a minute. But first I want to say a something more general about the story. Oates’ comment that it seems like a first draft, Betsy’s comment that it seems incomplete, and Trevor’s comment that “Munro is not her usual subtle self” all seem of a family of similar criticism. But of the three Munro stories I read recently (“Orange Street” and “Jesse and Meribeth” are the other two) it is to me clearly the best. Were I more confident that my reading of “Orange Street” were right (that Callie is transgender and Edgar is gay) I would count that story as best, but as the discussion on that page shows, we really don’t quite ever know what is going on in the story. An obliquely told story with artful omission certainly can be well done, but when there is a lack of clarity there is a problem. It is quite clear what “Eskimo” is all about, but that does not mean it suffers from a lack of complexity, intelligence, subtlety, and power.
    .
    I won’t discuss a lot of the details of the story – Trevor and Betsy covered many of them very well – other than to quickly comment on three of them. Firstly, I love that the story takes place on a flight from Vancouver to Honolulu. Mary Jo is a Canadian going to a foreign and tropical location for a vacation, but Vancouver is a very long way from her home and Honolulu is not the tropical location she heading to. The beginning and end of the flight even suggest some sort of disorientation for her. Secondly, I wanted to make a point of clarification about one thing Betsy said. She referred to the Métis man as “mixed race”. This is not quite right. While it is true that the Métis people originated a few hundred years ago as a result of intermarriage between Europeans and First Nations people, they eventually developed their own unique culture and identity and now are recognized as a singular distinct ethnicity. A child born today who has one white parent and one Cree parent might be considered mixed race or to have a dual racial identity, but the child would not be Métis.
    .
    Thirdly, I want to pick up on Betsy’s comment that the relationship between the self-described “Eskimo” girl and the Métis man was one that was “possibly breaking the law”. About a decade ago, Canada had a significant national debate about a proposed law to change the age of consent. The law that was current at that time set the age of consent at fourteen and the proposed law (which ultimately passed) raised it to sixteen. But prior to that change, the age of consent in Canada had always been fourteen. In Hawaii, the destination for the flight, the age of consent then and now is sixteen. This is, I think, significant. Munro wants us to be uncomfortable about the relationship between these two characters. She wants us to wonder if it is abusive or exploitative (and to think it might well be both of these things), but not illegal. For Mary Jo’s identification with the “Eskimo” girl and her predicament to work best as symbolic of her relationship with Dr. Streeter it is helpful for it to be exploitative, but not for it to be illegal. I think Munro was careful to present a relationship that would make us uneasy, but not worry us about its legality.
    .
    This brings me to the major concern about the story that I want to raise, which involves explaining why I read it in the first place. Less than a month ago there was a literary controversy in Canada that was featured in the national news for several days. It started with the publication of a magazine by The Writers’ Union of Canada. The union is an important one. Most significant Canadian authors are members. Alice Munro is a member. Margaret Atwood used to be the President of the union. Anyway, the union publishes a quarterly magazine called Write. A month ago a new issue came out that was dedicated to First Nations authors and issues. The issue also included a column from the editor, Hal Niedzviecki, who is white. Niedzviecki wrote that he does not believe in “cultural appropriation” and he thinks all writers should be encouraged to write about all types of people. He joked that perhaps there should be a special prize created called “The Appropriation Prize” that would celebrate the best work by authors writing about people of a race or ethnicity other than their own.
    .
    The fallout from this was swift and severe. Niedzviecki was very widely criticized. The fact that the column appeared in an issue promoting and celebrating First Nations people writing their own stories seemed to add insult to the injury. Most of the reaction happened first on Twitter, as did the backlash to the backlash. Soon a prominent (white male) political columnist and editor offered to organize a real “Appropriation Prize” if it could be funded. Soon many other writers (all political columnists, and all white males) started tweeting amounts of money they would donate to the prize. It was not meant seriously (although that was far from clear when it happened), but it exacerbated the reaction and the problem. Niedzviecki was forced to resign as editor, his column was withdrawn, the Writers’ Union issued an official apology for it, and Niedzviecki publicly stated that the people talking about a real prize were not helping and asked them to stop, which they did. The story was national news and the national television news networks devoted a significant amount of time to discussing the issues of underrepresentation of minority writers and cultural appropriation.
    .
    When not even a month later I see a story called “Eskimo”, I wondered how First Nations people might be discussed or represented in the story and whether it might be problematic. So I decided to read it. I can say with little doubt that if this story were being published for the first time today or if it were to somehow come to national attention now years after it was published that it would be held up as a perfect example of everything that is wrong with how First Nations people are treated in writing by white authors. If there were a real “Appropriation Prize” Munro would not win it. In fact, if this story and it’s problems became a source of public debate I have no doubt that Munro would offer a sincere and unequivocal apology for it. She might even withdraw it from publication altogether. Is it really all that bad? Let’s take a closer look.
    .
    The first problem is the way that Munro uses and reinforces two of the strongest negative stereotypes about First Nations people. The Inuit girl and Métis man are both drunk. The “drunk Indian” is one of the most well-known and powerful negative stereotypes. The other major stereotype Munro invokes is the sexually exploitative First Nations man. Abusive relationships are a problem in all cultures, but have taken on a particular significance as a way of characterizing First Nations men. We have, in fact, right now in Canada an ongoing national inquiry into “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”. (Just check #MMIW on Twitter to see links to all the latest news.) It does not help Munro that these two stereotypes are pretty much the only two things we know about these people. As characters, they are really nothing more than just their stereotypes. Oddly, from a perspective that does not notice that this might be culturally insensitive, let alone being very offensive, it makes sense for Munro to depict them this way. That’s because these two people are not important to the story as people, but more as symbols. But this is where the issue of cultural appropriation comes in. Munro has used First Nations people and their cultural difference from Mary Jo to give them purely symbolic value. They and their cultures are not respected for what they are in their own right, but for what they mean to Mary Jo.
    .
    So as I said, I could easily see how any First Nations person who is aware of the issues of underrepresentation of First Nations authors and both the issues of stereotyping and cultural appropriation by white authors would be highly critical of this story. As a white person, I have the luxury of being able to see all of these concerns are present and real and yet at the same time to be able to disassociate from them their harmfulness and see the story independently of that. It reminds me of The Merchant of Venice. It’s not my favourite Shakespeare play, but one I find among the most interesting. What interests me most about it is that it seems so obviously to be written as a straightforward antisemitic comedy. I have no doubt that this is how Shakespeare intended it to be viewed. Shylock’s famous “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is meant to show him to be ridiculous, not sympathetic. But most people who love Shakespeare don’t like the idea that he wrote an antisemitic play, so they have decided it is a drama that sympathizes with his religious persecution, but whose downfall is justified by him being a bad person for reasons independent of religion. The interpretation does not fit at all, but people continue to insist on seeing it that way. Anyway, before I went off on a long tangent the point I was trying to make was that “Eskimo” is one that can be seen as successful and enjoyable if you are able to turn a blind eye to the racism of how the Inuit girl and Métis man are depicted. I don’t necessarily like doing that, but I can. Especially since Munro, unlike Shakespeare, is unwittingly racist and not intentionally so.
    .
    Betsy, before you can ask, I won’t be on board for the next Munro story. Three is my limit, for now, especially when the next one is so very long. I have literally a dozen other books I have been waiting to get to, so my next connecting flight will take me away from Munro country. I’m sure I will return again eventually, but there are so many other places I want to see first.

  2. betsy pelz June 5, 2017 at 10:09 am

    Thank you, David.

    Our discussion would be completely incomplete without your thoughtful, useful, and provocative discussion of “Eskimo” and its place in the Canadian canon, given the question of stereotype and the issue of “appropriation”.

    Will miss you here for the time being. Look forward to your return, if and when.

  3. Harri T June 5, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    Mary Jo´s dreams may be blurry, but not the story. For a Munro piece, it´s to me one of the quite straightforward as it describes the gradual awakening of an ordinary girl and mistress. After a lot of readily understood Freudian daydreams and thoughts, Mary Jo learns something about herself and the progress of love.
    It´s characteristic to Munro´s protagonists to sort out their existence and discover themselves during a journey, leaving the mundane in a train or a car, now airborne.
    There is a difference,too – Mary Jo does not want to go anywhere.

    Very opportune that the story has been published in “Gentleman´s Quarterly” .

    The story culminates in the final sentence,’this is the beginning of her holiday’. There we encounter vagueness, the reader has to construct the outcome.
    Is Mary Jo going to reorganize her life, free herself from the total dependence on the cardiologist who understands very little about heart? Is the plane incident a prelude to assuming the responsibility of her own desire? Is she spending a good holiday from Dr Streeter, relax in spite of her doubts and return to the ‘solitary relishes’ of her boss. Was it only an interlude?

    Mary Jo may be past learning anything. Is she really?

  4. betsy pelz June 20, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    Harri, I like the wording in and the progress of your sentence:

    “Is Mary Jo going to reorganize her life, free herself from the total dependence on the cardiologist who understands very little about heart? “

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