On its surface, “Winter Wind” looks like a familiar Alice Munro story. Here we have an adolescent girl who lives in the country but who spends a few days in town with her grandmother and her great Aunt Madge when a winter storm makes the roads home impassable. While we’ve never had this exact situation, we are on familiar ground, especially since the adolescent’s mother has declined into an incurable sickness that leaves them all a bit ashamed. We might as well call this unnamed narrator Del.
Indeed, the first time I read “Winter Wind” I was a bit disappointed, thinking it a bit too familiar. But with some revisits, I found in the story so many layers, including one particularly fascinating passage when Munro herself seems to jump on the page and address us. Something similar will happen again in “The Ottawa Valley,” the last story in this volume, which we’ll be covering shortly. In fact, the same thing happens throughout Munro’s career, up to and including her final book Dear Life.
And that Munro would speak to us directly is not surprising given that so much of this story feels like it is from her own experience. As we know, her own mother suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, they lived in the country, and she did have a grandmother and great aunt whom she visited frequently, including at least one time during a winter storm, according to Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives. At the time Munro wrote “Winter Wind,” her grandmother had died in 1966 while her great aunt lived at a nursing home until she died at 97 in 1976.
“Winter Wind” offers fascinating insight into the mind of this young girl who has one role at her home and another at her grandmother’s, but it’s the autobiographical moment I want to focus on first. There is a moment when the narrator is telling us about her Aunt Madge’s marriage and then about her grandmothers. Suddenly, she stops, and this is where Munro seems to come out from behind the words on the page:
And how is anybody to know, I think as I put this down, how am I to know what I claim to know? I have used these people, not all of them, but some of them, before. I have tricked them out and altered them and shaped them any way at all, to suit my purposes. I am not doing that now, I am being as careful as I can, but I stop and wonder, I feel compunction. [. . . .]
But that only takes care of the facts. I have said other things. I have said that my grandmother would choose a certain kind of love. I have implied that she would be stubbornly, secretly, destructively romantic. Nothing she ever said to me, or in my hearing, would bear this out. Yet I have not invented it, I really believe it. Without any proof I believe it, and so I must believe that we get messages another way, that we have connections that cannot be investigated, but have to be relied on.
I believe most writers (and most editors would recommend this) cut this out. I mean, this is the story of a young girl and her relationships with her mother, her grandmother, and her great aunt. Though I’m fascinated by this notion that though the narrator (and I think we can say with confidence taht this extends to Munro) invents, she does so in order to tell the truth as she sees it, but what role does this interjection serve in this particular story?
I’m still formulating this in my mind, but I believe this is the central point of a lot of Munro’s fiction: this intersection between the vast scope of another and the vast scope of oneself. Here is a narrator who is trying to understand herself and the roles she plays. It begs the question: how can one pretend to know the secrets of another (and she admits nothing her grandmother ever said would support her conclusions) if one cannot get a handle on oneself, other than to know that you are a complex being, playing multiple roles in multiple scenarios:
The loud argumentative scandalous person I was at home had not much more to do with my real self than the discreet unrevealing person I was at my grandmother’s house, but judging both as roles it can be seen that the first had more scope.
This notion comes to the forefront in a subtle, seemingly tangential death at the end of the story, the death of Susie Heferman, a woman the grandma and aunt know well who dies out in the cold. Aunt Madge says, “You never can tell what can happen to a person.”
I don’t think it’s contradictory for Munro’s narrator to attempt to know — even to feel confident she does know — the hidden lives of others while also saying these same people still have their hidden lives. Indeed, this feels like a most responsible way to get to know someone.
“Winter Wind” revisits familiar territory. That is no surprise — in Munro, much is re-used. The question is what gives this story its own individual life?
Here we are again in Jubilee, the little town beside the Wawanash. This time, it’s a blizzard that threatens to turn the town into “Siberia.” Much like a train ride, a blizzard enforces a change in scenery, a pause, new encounters, new realizations. An adult woman is telling us about the time she took shelter in town with her grandmother and great-aunt, had a little break from the sick mother and the chores.
The storm started before noon, when we were in Chemistry, and we watched its progress hopefully, looking forward to something disruptive, to blocked roads and short supplies and bedding down in school corridors.
Something disruptive. As if that isn’t a lesson in the short story all in itself. What Munro says takes me back. I remember those days, the way the storm would still us momentarily, transport us. But with something disruptive, there is the promise of change and growth.
The story telling is so matter-of-fact the story seems entirely true, entirely memoir, entirely real. But in this story, the family business is hens, not foxes, and there are other ways it diverges. Once again, there is a girl dealing with an invalided mother, once again the father is primarily absent, once again there are the older female relatives, once again there is a teenaged girl reading on a winter night warming her feet in the oven.
I suspect this story is leftover from Lives of Girls and Women, though, because of its wonderful riff on a particular old family photograph, one that the narrator says she has saved and taken with her wherever she moved.
And there are within this riff a couple of references to shame: a grandmother is poorly dressed in the photograph, “shamefaced,” without “authority.”
The narrator herself is reminded of her mother, how because of the mother’s illness the girl must “translate” for her, “a job that made [her] wild with shame.” And she goes on to say how “embarrassed” she was that it was hard to manage the house with the mother so ill, that it was a topic for relatives to poke around, or even make mismanaged efforts to help. What interests me is that in “The Peace of Utrecht,” Munro’s big break-through story, Helen escapes the trap; she marries and runs away from the situation of being responsible for her mother. In this story, the girl feels the same trap — the shame — but there are things she likes about her situation. Having her mother so incapacitated gives the girl an unusual freedom. She can drop her coat wherever she likes, she can skip her homework, she can read with her feet in the oven. Presumably, she is free to test herself, something that a would-be writer might need to do. “Winter Wind” gives Munro this chance to say, it wasn’t all bad. The story allows Munro to do what she sorely likes: to balance things, to layer good and bad, known and unknown. Munro herself has such a “self-do-it” streak that this story feels to me an explanation of the strength. Yes, having her mother so sick was a trap, but having all the responsibility was also freedom and it was also an engine.
So in this story, you have both shame and energy. The girl is not buckled by the first, not out of control in the second.
Remember that in the epilogue of The Lives of Girls and Women Munro features the photographer who alters his subjects, gives them the full gothic. Munro, instead, says, “[W]hat I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.”
Munro does that here, admitting the girl’s shame of home, but also admitting “it was a place I did not have to watch too closely what I said and did.”
The story juxtaposes scenes with the grandmother and great aunt with scenes between the girl and her best friend. It also juxtaposes now and long ago, as well as the ideal with the quotidian.
And best of all, best of all, we have the contrast between the teenager’s inner and outer self.
So what about the “something disruptive”? In “Winter Wind,” Munro explores betrayal. Is she happier away from the shameful mother? Or is she happier away from the tidy, busy, nosy, opinionated grandmother and great-aunt?
She concludes that it was a relief to go home, where she could be herself. Lying and deceit was a theme in “The Spanish Lady,” and in many of the other stories. There is a line here that Munro explores. Just as she questions that being a little free can mean being out of control, she also questions just what the point is when a little deceit becomes full on betrayal. Is the lying she must do — continually — regarding what goes on at home betrayal or self-preservation? In this case, we know that it is self-preservation.
Self-preservation at someone else’s expense is often a concern in Munro. Here, it is almost as if Munro is outlining what the teenager experiences so that the adult in us all admits she has no other choice but to do what she does, suggesting that perhaps adults, too, may find themselves in similar territory.
The story also explores the duality that being a person always is: that you are one thing on the surface and another inside. Munro, being Munro, has a couple of dualities that contrast with one another. One is that the girl presents an honest face while knowing she is being deceitful, and another is that while she is filled with shame about what home is, at the same time she enjoys the freedom it provides her. And yet another duality is that the teenager can be raucous and bold on the outside, while being sensible and deep on the inside.
The loud argumentative scandalous person I was at home had not much more to do with my real self than the discreet unrevealing person I was in my grandmother’s house, but judging both as roles, it could be see the first had more scope.
Finally, on the topic of the way Munro revisits material, “Winter Wind” is revealing and philosophical on this problem. Munro asserts that storytelling about the people we know is natural to all of us. “And [. . .] how am I to know what I claim to know?” she asks.
She answers in this way: she is as careful about the facts as she can be. But she also goes much further than the facts, so that she is impelled to say, “Yet I have not invented [this interpretation of life], I truly believe it. Without any proof I believe it, so I must believe we get messages another way, that we have connections that cannot be investigated, but have to be relied on.”
I think she is talking, for one thing, about her method: she creates a story out of layers of stories, and it is the “connections” made when you create those layers that create the truth she is after. This is the “other way” this writer receives reality.
The spare way she articulates her theory of psychology is stunning.