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.
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.