Merry Christmas from us at The Mookse and the Gripes. Betsy and I were happy that the next piece in our Munro trek happened to be one of Munro’s few stories centered on the Christmas season. Though it ends with some women singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” while walking arm in arm on Christmas Eve night, it’s not a traditional Christmas story. In fact, it questions why these people would act this way on this particular night when it is completely out of character.
“The Turkey Season” is told by an older woman looking back to the job she had during the Christmas season when she was a fourteen-year-old girl: a turkey gutter at the Turkey Barn. In some ways, “The Turkey Season” is a coming-of-age story, through the lens of the workplace community, but Munro is also examining memory, particularly how we come together in our memory (or memories help us to come together), even if there is little else to make us close.
The Turkey Barn is a business like many others, though everyone becomes bloody by the time their shift is over. During the working hours, disparate people sit in the same room; strangely, these are the people they might spend the most time with. The Turkey Barn, consequently, is a kind of community with its own hierarchies, alliances, and secret communications. The narrator is not fully a part of this community, showing up only after school for a few hours and that for only the short season leading up to Christmas. She did not choose these acquaintances, but she is getting to know them, particularly the other women who gut the turkeys with her. She likes them enough, but finds their association frustrating:
I could be enraged then at the lack of logic in most adults’ talk — the way they held to their pronouncements no matter what evidence might be presented to them. How could these women’s hands be so gifted, so delicate and clever — for I knew they would be as good at dozens of other jobs as they were at gutting; they would be good at quilting and darning and painting and papering and kneading dough and setting out seedlings — and their thinking so slapdash, clumsy, infuriating?
Not that she, at fourteen — or at whatever grown up age the older narrator finds herself — understands everything that was going on around her. These people come together, share a decent portion of their lives, at this festive season, together, but each still has his or her private life. With that comes the potential for romanticism or scandal. And with that comes the potential for romanticism or scandal in the work place as private lives begin to drift over to the Turkey Barn.
Most of what the narrator knows about these people are from inferences. She doesn’t know for sure, for example, whether the most interesting, kind, and distant of the men was homosexual, but the evidence is strong. She doesn’t know what is keeping Gladys apart. She doesn’t know what the new kid, Herb’s friend, does to Gladys (or did Gladys do something to him) that gets him fired and run out of town. She also doesn’t know, yet, that she cannot know these things for sure. And so the potential for knowledge motivates her to see the world, represented by this small community at the Turkey Barn, as something she can come to know while it remains infinite.
It seems unlikely that on my way to the Turkey Barn, for an hour of gutting turkeys, I should have experienced such a sense of promise and at the same time of perfect, impenetrable mystery in the universe, but I did. Herb had something to do with that, and so did the cold snap — the series of hard, clear mornings. The truth is, such feelings weren’t hard to come by then. I would get them but not know how they were to be connected with anything in real life.
At the end of the story, though, it’s Christmas Eve. The workers have a small celebration after a job well done, and the evening is capped off with a photograph. The older narrator looks at the photograph and must wonder how on earth she ever spent time with these utterly unknowable people. There they are, with their bloody smocks removed, posing together on that Christmas Eve. Soon she will be singing arm in arm with a few of the other women as they go home to reenter that private life of which we, the readers, remain ignorant. What is it about the season that brings such a sense of community — of false community in this case . . . or is it real, I’m not sure? The photograph, true and false at the same time, is a wonderful representation of unknowable communities.
On Christmas Eve, in “The Turkey Season,” the workers in the Turkey Barn get their picture taken. The picture is a record of the moment, but at the same time, it isn’t. They wore their work clothes in the picture, their “overalls and shirts,” but they had taken off their “bloody smocks.”
Over and over in this story, reality has a way of shifting. Things are unsaid or unrevealed or disguised or just plain mysterious. Even the photographic record emphasizes one reality over another. That they are a satisfied crew who’s finished up their work for the season is the message of the photograph, but the bloody reality of the nature of their work is unrecorded by the snap.
The narrator tells us that she looks “years older than fourteen” in the picture. That the narrator looks years older is real enough: in this environment, she’d mastered a tough test toward adulthood: that she could do more than just be a good student at school; that she could also learn how to gut a turkey; she could stick to it and she could earn money, something her father had doubted she could do. But still, she’s one thing at home and another in this picture.
“Work, to everybody I knew, meant doing things I was no good at doing,” she says, ”and work was what people prided themselves on and measured each other by. (It goes without saying that the things I was good at, like schoolwork, were suspect or held in plain contempt.) So it was a surprise and then a triumph for me not to get fired . . .”
Another girl in the picture, Irene, gives the photographer a “sluttish, inviting look,” but it’s a look the narrator doesn’t ever remember having seen before. The camera catches a sexy side of Irene the fourteen year old had never seen — there’s a lot she doesn’t know yet, there’s a lot to learn. Except for one thing. The story emphasizes, over and over, that there are a lot of things that escape us, a lot of things we can’t ever really know.
In the Christmas Eve photograph, Marjorie and Lily “look like a couple of tough and jovial but testy workmen.” This idea that the two women might be easily mistaken for men is important. Later that evening, after having her picture taken and after having had a swig of whiskey, Lily tells about the time she and a girlfriend “had dressed up as men one time and gone into the men’s side of the beer parlor . . . because they wanted to see what it was like.” Nobody noticed them. The idea that sexuality might be a role or a mask or a disguise or an amusement is paired with the idea that women want to know what it would be like to be a man. The idea that women don’t completely understand men, or that men want to evade women, are both central ideas in the story.
But it’s not just men who evade women. Gladys, the owner’s sister, isn’t in the photograph at all, even though she’d been working in the barn earlier in the season. She is probably laid up and in hiding, having been assaulted in some mysterious way by an encounter with a temp in the bathroom. It’s not clear why Gladys is so fragile, or why she ever left the city and had to come live with her brother, except that everyone believes she’s had a nervous breakdown. Gladys manages to distort what other people know about her with the screen of “breakdown,” and whoever she really is remains permanently unavailable to others.
Another character who is missing from the photograph is Brian, the fantastically good looking and insolent young man who got himself fired over the incident with Gladys. And Herb, the foreman, is missing because he took the photograph.
Herb is an artist of evasion. He has an “efficient” way of working, but he has no real career, seeing as he works boats in the summer, the turkey season in the fall, and the billiard parlor in the winter. Having “no wife, no house, no family,” he’s the kind of guy women like Marjorie and Lily want to give a “jolt.” In a town where it is required that a homosexual be effeminate, and in a town where women believed homosexuality to be “a rarity,” Herb is the ultimate of the unavailable man’s man, and he is a mystery.
Nonetheless, Herb having brought on Brian poses the question. Brian, who had an “insistent sexuality” and “amazing good looks,” was also lazy and manipulative, and Herb, who was so efficient in all other ways, seemed flummoxed by the situation Brian presented. Eventually, of course, Brian’s presence ended in fiasco, and he was fired.
The narrator remarks:
I don’t want to go into the question of whether Herb was homosexual or not, because the definition is no use to me. I think that probably he was, but maybe he was not . . . . He is not a puzzle to be so arbitrarily solved.
Even though Herb has managed to stay out of the snapshot, the narrator remembers him with a mind’s-eye picture of her own — the “peculiar, stricken” look he had when Brian betrayed him with his bad behavior toward Gladys.
On the surface, this story is about turkey gutting, and the way a fourteen year old girl managed to prove herself by having a go at it. Her delight at her success is mirrored by her little epiphany when on the way to work early one morning. Darkness, snow, streetlights and stars combined to give her a moment when she felt a “sense of promise and at the same time [the sense] of perfect impenetrable mystery in the universe.” And she makes a point of saying that “Herb had something to do with that.”
At a deeper level, therefore, Herb is a source of continuing epiphany to the narrator, representing, as he does, a kind of ultimate disguise. The story is about sexuality and the camouflage that sexuality wears. People are both available and enigma. People are both desirable and evasive. Herb, in particular, might be merely reserved, he might be the consummate and born teacher, he might be primarily a good boss, he might be really good at reading people, he might be a man’s man, free of the encumbrances of women, he might be gay. Or not.
Being gay, by the time this story was written, had become a very public affair. People were “out,” and gay pride marches were occurring in many major cities. But in 1980, this phenomenon of openness was only ten years old, and in contrast, at the time this story takes place in the late forties, it was criminal to be openly partnered with someone of your own sex. In the United States and Canada in the early fifties, gay men and women were labeled a national security risk and were actively pursued and pushed out of government and teaching and the armed services. Once purged, they could find themselves blacklisted in the private sector as well.
In Logan, Ontario, when faced with men who had taken up a woman’s role, the narrator posits that people adapted, so to speak. She says, “Once the label was fixed, there was a good deal of tolerance for these people.” At the same time, though, Munro makes the sly point that women believed in “the rarity of homosexuality.” There is, therefore, both explanation and evasion on all sides. Yes, by 1980 huge gay pride marches were commonplace in American cities. But still — how to get people to completely reveal themselves? Straight or gay, complete self-revelation was still a pipe-dream.
Munro, of course, has already used the word “label.” It is as if the entire story is a fight against the reliability of anything that could be construed as a label.
The story is further complicated (and layered) by the vision of dead turkeys that haunts the girl:
I saw them hanging upside down, plucked and stiffened, pale and cold, with the heads and necks limp, the eyes and nostrils clotted with dark blood; the remaining bits of feathers — those dark and bloody, too — seemed to form a crown.
What exactly Munro means by this (except to get us completely into the environment of the turkey barn) is unclear. But there is this intimation – that labels, definitions, and simplistic explanations are also a kind of plucking and gutting. The bloody crown is of course an echo of a crown of thorns, from which reverberates the idea of human suffering. Whether that suffering is merely the natural isolation that all human beings feel, or also the isolation that gay people specifically suffer, is not clear. Sometimes a dead turkey is just a dead turkey. But the fact is that Munro says the girl sees these dead turkeys as a “vision,” and in the Christmas season at that. Thus the reader defends her sense of the more complicated reverberations.
What matters to the narrator, what stays with her, is that Herb had a quality of dignity, strength, reserve, and safety, and she was fascinated by it, fascinated with the strength that those qualities of his gave her. At the same time, he is mostly unavailable, except as her teacher. He represents ongoing epiphany of the distance between people.
She remarks: “I can still feel the pull of a man like that, of his promising and refusing.”
As if the ultimate reality, beyond the photograph, beyond the anecdote, is the fact that people sometimes choose to remain inviolate, and it is this very choice that makes them fascinating.