This is one of my favorite Alice Munro stories. It’s complex and rich and exciting. Here Alice Munro goes out into the wilderness of Canada in 1852 and shows us the survival of a woman who, at first, sits on the periphery of other narratives, unable to speak for herself until the end of the story. Still, by that time we recognize this rich, sympathetic character, even if her own accounts are contradictory.
This woman is Annie Herron, née McKillop. Our first glimpse of Annie is in a letter written by a woman who runs a girl’s orphanage in Toronto (the entire story is told through letters or other primary documents). She is responding to an inquiry from a Simon Herron, a young man making his way in the rugged frontier, who apparently wants a wife and thought of the orphanage as a kind of shop. The matron doesn’t seem shocked by this and gives him some recommendations as if they were products, even if she can say that it is for the girs’ own good: “a marriage to a likely man would probably be preferred to a lifetime of such work.” Here’s what Simon Herron learns of Annie:
The other girl, Miss McKillop, is of a more durable constitution though of lean frame and not so good a complexion. She has a waywardness about one eye but id does not interfere with her vision and her sewing is excellent. The darkness of her eyes and hair and brown tinge of her skin is no indication of mixed blood, as both parents were from Fife. She is a hardy girl and I think would be suited to such a life as you can offer, being also free form the silly timidness we often see in girls of her age.
The life Simon has to offer Annie is a life of hardship, at least at the onset. He and his little brother George are taming the harsh land, and really Simon just wants a wife who will tend to everything he thinks a wife should tend to while not complaining.
It doesn’t quite work out that way. We learn in the book’s second section, an excerpt from the Carstairs Argus, written by George Herron fifty years later, that Simon did indeed marry Annie in the winter of 1852 but Simon was dead by early April. This account is written close to the end of George’s own life. He’s been a successful man in the region, and shortly after he wrote this recollection he suffered a stroke that left him unable to talk. The primary story he tells is how in early April 1852 he and his brother went to clear trees. Simon, unfortunately, was struck in the head by a large branch and was killed instantly. Annie garners some mention in this excerpt. George tells how she helped him clean Simon. That’s about it, other than this throwaway line toward the end of the account:
My brother’s wife did not continue in this place but went her own way to Walley.
It’s not quite that simple, though, and as the story continues Munro lays one letter on top of another, developing a fascinating account of the relatively silent Annie. At first, we continue to hear about Annie from others. When she goes back to Walley, she goes to be thrown in the jail, or, as it was spelled there at the time, the gaol. The local reverend is perplexed by her. She showed up saying she’d murdered her husband.
Did she? Well, we do get her confession, but it seems unlikely. Another spectator, someone who knew slightly of the situation out in the wilderness, writes back to the reverent to tell him he didn’t believe she did anything of the sort, and that he believed the account as George and Annie had once given it: Simon was killed by a tree branch.
Why, then, does Annie confess to the murder? What is going on between her and George? Can we know the truth, in the end, since all we are presented is a series of writings (nowhere in this story does an omniscient narrator help us with transitions or tell us how to feel)? Most of these are second-hand accounts. The accounts we get from George and, eventually, Annie actually tell three versions of Simon’s death. At the end, we see some documents and another letter, from someone who knows very little about what happened in 1852, going to the Queen’s University at Kingston Department of History in 1959.
Though we can wonder what really happened, and I think Munro is suggesting relative unknowability, we eventually see the puzzle pieces fit together, showing us a picture of abuse, fear, neglect, and escape from one of life’s wilderness stations.
There is a secret between George and Annie, and though they don’t see each other for fifty years following the death of Simon, that secret influences each of them. It’s lovely to see Annie have the upper hand in the end.
In “A Wilderness Station” Alice Munro sets herself several very difficult challenges.
First, the 35-page story spans over a hundred years, from 1852 and 1959.
Second, it depends solely upon eleven letters written by six individuals, with an embedded comment by a seventh, and a memoir published in the fiftieth anniversary edition of the Carstairs Argus. It is an epistolary story. It is a story of what historians call “original documents.” There is no narrator. Or, conversely, there are eight narrators.
The third challenge of the story is a setting which includes Toronto, the Carstairs that existed in 1852, the one that existed in 1907, the county of North Huron, Walley in general and the Walley Gaol in particular, the Herron homestead, and the Queen’s University History Department in 1959. Perhaps a better way to express it is that the story takes place in the arenas of the family, the state, the church, the university, the whiskey-bar, and the wild.
An additional and stunning aspect of the setting is the Stanley Steamer owned by a young woman in 1907 and the impression she and it made on everyone who saw them. One might say that the Steamer was in this story, in 1907, the setting of the future made visible.
Without a doubt, however, the story is also in the world of ideas. A Scottish minister says:
This world is a wilderness, in which we may indeed get our station changed, but the move will be out of one wilderness station into another.
The story could be investigated as a discussion of history and the way history depends upon original documents to ferret out the truth. The story demonstrates that if one document is missing, one version of the truth would not be quite as true, or it would not be so fleshed out, or it could be completely off the mark. But I leave that approach for someone else to write.
(And here I admonish you to stop and read the story if you have not done so yet.)
The story could be investigated from the point of view of children’s rights, orphans’ rights, women’s rights, or women’s emancipation, or the rights of jail-keepers and doctors — all in the period in Canada between 1852 and 1907. One could ask, when women got the vote, did they go from one wilderness station to another? Or one could investigate the use of time, setting or characterization.
Or one could very productively look at the symbol of the “gaol” and the irony that a woman would be safer in a jail than on the outside, or the irony that a woman who has already experienced the jail of the orphanage and the jail of her marriage would ultimately be safer in gaol. To a degree, the story reminds me of The Scarlet Letter and its ministers and jails and seamstresses and good works.
But I am more interested in the issue of insanity, and how men seem, in their various quests, unquestionable, while women are easily deemed insane or unstable. In particular, this story continues a long inquisition by Alice Munro into the unreliability of the medical treatment available to women, especially the psychological evaluation of women. The blaming of women for men’s or society’s insanity is a wilderness station of immense bleakness.
It’s January, 1852. The story opens with a letter being answered. A young man of about twenty has communicated with the Matron of the House of Industry (or the poorhouse for orphan girls) to ask if she can send him a wife. What we do not find out until later is that this young man, Simon Herron, cannot read or write himself. We also do not find out until later that he is violent when pushed, and he feels pushed often. His personality seems to require utter control of himself, and his childhood having involved what amounts to slavery, he is convinced he has the right to be in utter control of others. He seems to have a horror of being indebted to anyone. We learn later that he is hermit-like in his desire to withdraw from society, having no interest in cooperation or friendship with a neighboring family of homesteaders. He, like his fifteen-year-old brother, is an orphan, and he has struck out for the bush to make his fortune. But his entire future hangs on this one thing: that he has a tendency toward entitled, cruel and impulsive acts of violence.
Later, we learn from Simon’s brother George that very shortly after they began their homesteading in the wild, Simon decided that he needed a wife. The wife would:
cook and do for us and milk a cow when we could afford one. […] He wanted one between eighteen and twenty-two years of age, healthy and not afraid of work and raised in the Orphanage, not taken in lately, so that she would not be expecting any luxuries or to be waited on and would not be recalling when things were easier for her.
Note the contempt; note how not even respect enters in at all. Love and cherish are outliers, in the manner of Saturn’s moons in relation to us. The girl will be a furnishing, an object, a machine, a thing of no report, except if she should become a problem, a problem which Simon already envisions: that she would recall when “things were easier for her.” She should be merely dumb and grateful for the great favor he has done her. But I go on.
Possibly, some of the way the wilderness is exceptional was communicated to the Matron. We do not know. In the reply that the Matron writes to Simon, she seems uninterested in what he might actually be like. What is clear is that she wants to get the girl off her hands. There is an absentee landlord aspect to her words and deeds. There were a lot of orphans in Canada in 1852. There are four orphans alone in this story. That’s a lot of dead weight, unless you can at least put it to work.
And some of the orphans cannot be put to work. One of the orphans, in fact, has consumption and is deemed a poor bet for marriage and all its work.
The Matron wants to get a girl off the dole. The young man wants a slave. Neither society nor men come off well in this picture.
Not too long after, Annie McKillop, not soft, not plump, not consumptive, and neither lazy nor stupid, arrives at the homestead, duly married to Simon. She reveals to the little brother that “she had never imagined so much bush.”
By that we are invited to imagine the wilderness and its challenges, none of which had been shared with her, given that, as an orphan, she has about as much status as a chair. Or less.
By April, her husband is dead, ostensibly killed by a widow-maker while logging in the woods, but in reality killed by a hatchet wielded by her husband’s younger brother. The murder had occurred in the midst of a morning’s terrible work.
The husband, we learn, has been beating his wife for nothing, or for petty annoyances. He gets “a bad look” when he is about to attack her. He has also been beating the little brother, and on this day George had had it and killed his older brother, the (insane) tyrant. By this time we see that the wilderness has driven them all half out of their minds.
While Annie had no recourse against her violent husband and no one else to depend upon, it seems that George had made fast friends with a big homesteading family.
Seeing that the neighboring big-hearted family is his way out, George acts. He thinks he will be able to keep the murder a secret. They are in the middle of nowhere, and stranded because of an April snowstorm. In fact, George has probably already deduced that the ground has thawed enough to bury Simon. He takes his chance and gives Annie the story about the falling section of tree.
But Annie’s diligent. While making a shroud for Simon, she realizes his head has been cleaved by a hatchet. What now? She’s aware that the boy has committed a murder. Here’s a complicated problem that Annie solves, step by clever step. First, she calms him down with a bible-reading game that convinces him God has accepted his confession.
She fearlessly adopts the role of comforter, minister, and source of forgiveness. They bury the body, they tell their lie to the world, everyone buys it, and they make it through the next few weeks.
But George gets cosseted and then taken in by the neighboring family, the Treeces. Life is so promising within their care that suddenly George has a lot to lose. He has so much to lose that he becomes very fearful of Annie revealing him to be the murderer he is. He is so frightened that his whole demeanor towards Annie changes.
She says: “Then he looked at me for the first time in a bad way. It was the same bad way his brother used to look [and soon] it was never anything but the bad look.”
She thinks that George might now kill her. After all, he killed his brother.
Here we have it. Do you believe her? That she could intuit such a truth from a mere look? A mere tip in the emotional weather?
If you’re a woman, you likely believe her. If you’re a man, it’s a toss-up. Society has declared that women are often unreliable. If the woman in your life is primarily a servant (or a slave), then you don’t believe her. If you believe Annie, what she does next makes sense. If you don’t believe her, it doesn’t. It looks insane.
So now Annie has the same problem that George had had. She is terrified that George might kill her, just the way George was terrified that Simon might kill him. George solved the problem by killing Simon. With Simon out of the way, he might court the Treeces and their beautiful daughter.
For Annie, the solution is not that simple: “I couldn’t find anything to help me wherever I looked.”
(Is this the story of women?) We know that the only person Annie trusts is her friend Sophie from the home. Annie writes to her twice, and no one answers. It’s not that Annie can’t make a friend. It’s that she is so isolated.
It is possible she has cracked under the terrible pressures of the bush. An immigrant, educated Scotsman, a minister, dies from the pressure of the wild, inhospitable bush. Annie speaks of voices and dreaming and having trouble telling the difference between the two. Is this a sign that she is thoroughly insane and belongs in Bedlam? Or is it sensible that fearing murder, with no one to turn to, she has episodic breaks with reality?
To me, her fears are real. The threat of murder is an extremity. I believe her.
She decided she could not stay in the house where she would be cornered. She would hide in the woods. She had her intuition that he was as dangerous as Simon, and she was probably right.
But spend the rest of her life sleeping outside? Spend the winter sleeping outside? Spend the rest of her life in fear of George? Spend the rest of her life considered a crazy old crone?
Curiously, she finally deduces that it is a prison where she will be most safe. So she confesses to killing Simon and begs to be locked up.
A doctor who examines her suggests “she is subject to a sort of delusion peculiar to females, for which the motive is a desire for self-importance.”
The doctor easily dismisses her “confession” and at the same time seems to make no effort to collect information or evidence other than what he is already predisposed to think. He “diagnoses” her as unreliable and in the grip of a delusion.
The Clerk of the Walley Gaol (to which she has repaired to save herself from being murdered by George) acknowledged “that this is truly a hard country for women.” But he also thinks she is insane.
Did Simon beat Annie like a gong? I think so.
Did she ever wonder if he might kill her? I think so.
Did she truly understand why George killed Simon? I think so.
Was she right that George have murdered her? I think so.
Did she know she might be disbelieved and unprotected? I think so.
As it happened, Annie’s clever ruse worked. She survived, and eventually she ended up being adopted by the Clerk of the Peace and taken into his own home and his own big family as seamstress and general dogsbody. Years later, in 1907, when Annie saw George’s memoir in the Carstairs Argus, she decided it was time to pay a call on George.
In a highly entertaining story within a story. One of the Clerk’s daughters, Christena Mullen, drives Annie cross-country to see George (who is now, like Annie, very old). By now, regardless of his big crime, George has a big history, a big presence, and a big family. But Annie deems herself safe in the daring Christena’s company, and she gets a chance to have the last word. Christena Mullen is the one who had the money to buy the Stanley Steamer and the courage to drive it. They make quite a progress through the countryside over to George’s house.
Annie’s been adopted, too, and saved, too, and now Annie, too, has a “daughter.” George may have been (partially, minus the murder) seen in print in the Argus, but Annie has the last word.
At story’s end, it’s 1959. Christena is sending all the documents to the Department of History, Queen’s University, Kingston. The last word.
Post Script. The United States has been consumed with a he-said/she said story. A woman has accused a candidate for the Supreme Court of having assaulted her when she was 15 and he was 17. A large group of Americans believe the man’s denials, and a similarly large group of Americans believe the woman’s account. The American President has taken it upon himself to mock the woman’s story publicly. To me this current story in the news has to do with two opposing beliefs. One, that a woman has the ability to know the truth and the right to tell the truth. The second and opposing idea is that women make up dangerous stories about men, and are given to (as Alice Munro’s doctor in this story says) “a sort of delusion peculiar to females, for which the motive is a desire for self-importance.”
You be the judge.