Often when I sit down to write about an Alice Munro story I still don’t know what to make of it, even if I’ve read it a number of times, as I have with “A Queer Streak.” And yet in the act of writing connections are made that simply weren’t there before. When I sat down to write about “A Queer Streak” I was going to say that it is a flabby story, overlong (as we enter into the latter half of Munro’s career her stories will continue to lengthen, but in ways I love), and that it seemed to be an aborted novel. Well, all of that may still be true, but I’ve learned to appreciate “A Queer Streak” more than before.
The story concerns itself primarily with Violet, a daughter of the early twentieth century, and we track some particularly important moments from her life starting even before she was born:
Violet’s mother — Aunt Ivie — had three little boys, three baby boys, and she lost them. Perhaps to console herself for the bad luck she had already suffered, in the back corner of South Sherbrooke Township — or perhaps to make up, ahead of time, for a lack of motherly feelings — she gave the girls the fanciest names she could think of: Opal Violet, Dawn Rose, and Bonnie Hope.
Violet’s family is from the poor part of the country, and though she does not resent her family (at this young age) she doesn’t fit it. She looks for pleasant places to get lost.
The tale is told in two parts. First we have “Anonymous Letters,” in which we deal with Violet’s initial escape from her upbringing. She goes to school, finds and becomes engaged to a respectable pastor-in-training named Trevor, and her whole life is before her. But then come the anonymous letters, cruel, crass notes to her father, called King Billy, which threaten his life. It’s clear that if she was of a mind, Munro could write a decent thriller. We sit with the family as the dread builds and they cannot stand to even sleep. When Violet learns of the letters, she returns home and it doesn’t take long for her to figure out the perpetrator: her younger sister Dawn Rose.
In a moment of blindness — she can usually see how strange her family is to others and has never let Trevor meet them — Violet sends a letter to Trevor explaining the whole situation and even includes the awful letters. Realizing too late what she’s done, Violet rushes out of town, hoping to beat the mail to Trevor. She fails, though, and their unhappy reunion is marked by this strange realization:
But instead of feeling that she wanted the problem of Dawn Rose solved for her by Trevor, Violet now seemed to feel that she had to protect Dawn Rose against him.
We know this is the end of their relationship.
Instead of moping about, though, Violet decides that she must look at this sudden turn of fortune as an opportunity to live for others, especially her family. She must defend them.
Though it’s not always easy:
At moments like this, thought Violet, it must be at moments like this that people do the things you hear about, and read about in the newspaper. The things you try to imagine, or try not to imagine. She could imagine it, she could feel what it would be like. The quick sunny flight, then the smack of the gravelly bank. Drowning yourself would be pleasant, but would require a firmer purpose. You’d have to keep wanting it, still wanting it, hugging the water, gulping it down.
This first part of the story is remarkable, and doubly so in contrast to the second part, called “Possession.” If I was expecting a continuation of the story of Violet, I was disappointed (indeed, at first I was). Instead, we shoot forward a generation and meet Violet’s nephew Dane, son of the now dead Dawn Rose. Munro presents Violet now as an older woman who had a long-time affair that eventually led to marriage, but now Violet is almost a side character, a bit of an enigma for Dane and the rest of us. She seems happy.
I felt this part sagged a great deal, but it eventually leads to a wonderfully realized conclusion. In her old age, Violet meets with some young nieces in the 1980s, anxious to fight against the patriarchy. She tells them the story of the Anonymous Letters, which they find remarkable:
Thank you a million, million times for your help and openness. You have given us a wonderful story. It is a classic story of anti-patriarchal rage. Your gift to us, can we give it to others. What is Female Craziness is nothing but centuries of Frustration and Oppression.
This is where “possession” comes in. This is the danger of reducing a complex situation and people to a tool. This leaves Violet impatient and upset. After all, it was her life that was irrevocably changed when the letters were sent. It may have even been the desire to get her back home that led Dawn Rose to write the letters to her father in the first place. There’s no evidence that King Billy was abusive — Violet was a progressive woman, after all.
So here she sits, after a life of deference, feeling her family and life reduced to “Frustration and Oppression.” Was she frustrated? Sure. Was she oppressed? For many reasons, yes. Will they ever understand the whole of it, the darkness that nearly led her to take her life? No.
And so I now have a deeper respect for “A Queer Streak,” and I’m curious what others think of this seemingly straight-forward but rather complicated and twisted story.
“A Queer Streak” is a narrative unlike most other Munro stories to date.
Being a change from Munro’s conventional approach, does the story succeed? Very much so. It is a story that has such power that when, at the end, a graying nephew gently listens to his old aunt’s confession, I am surprised by the tears in my eyes and a newly quickened sense of life.
Born in 1900 or so into a beaten down family in a beaten down state, Violet becomes the family’s beating heart. She cooks, she cleans, she organizes, and she mothers her two little sisters. She does well in school, goes on to high school, which was not that common at the time, and is accepted at Normal School to train as a teacher. She does all this in spite of the poverty and “confusion” that is the warp and weft of the Thorns’ family life.
When she tries to leave the farm behind, tragedy intervenes. The teen-aged sisters cannot survive without her, and they manage, via a violent stratagem, to get her back home. Violet loses everything: her teaching certificate, her fiancée, her chance at love, and her future. Faced with disaster, Violet suffers a sudden vision that tells her how to save herself and her family at the same time.
Although much in this tale is similar in some ways to other Munro stories (the setting, the cool voice, the detached story-telling, the sparks of humor, the concern for women) there is much that is unusual.
Time: We hear Violet’s life story straight through from childhood to old age, in an almost precise chronological order, with very little of the violent jumping around that typifies Munro. Nor is there any philosophizing about time. In her very old age, the main character has a few episodes of flash back, but here flashback is not the engine of the narrative, it is the natural development in the mind of a very old woman. For most of the story, the narrative maintains a chronological point of view. Munro’s difficulty is that she wants to represent a complex but complete person over time. Fracturing the story, as if to represent a fractured identity or fractured personality is not the point. Keeping the story in an essentially chronological order complements the idea that this is an essentially unbroken, healthy and whole woman.
Extreme familial disorganization: Being poor is a common theme in Munro, but extreme emotional deprivation is the steady-state of Violet’s childhood in “A Queer Streak.” It is a kind of multi-tiered neglect that normally would be hard to survive, let alone escape. This is a family in which the first three boy babies were “lost,” and a family situation for which the most precise word that Violet can find to describe it is “confusion.”
Violet’s mother, known to everyone including her daughters as Aunt Ivie, feels to the reader to be weak in the head. No one, after all, ever expected her to marry. Violet’s father, known as King Billy, seems disordered and ineffectual. A man with “no people,” he appears to be a bastard filled with bluster, with not a little of the violence of the Orangemen for whom he is named. Although they can put food on the table, an inability to nurture appears to be the foundation of the Thorns’ household.
It was as if King Billy and Aunt Ivy had not quite understood how to go about making an ordinary life, even if they had meant to.
Violet (who is neither an artist or an intellectual) as true hero: That Violet is neither an intellectual nor an artist makes her unusual among Munro’s heroines, but that she is a true hero, à la Joan of Arc, makes her even more of a rarity in Munro. Heroism smacks of sentimentality and simple-mindedness, and Munro avoids the topic. Violet, however, is a kind of savior. She saves her family from complete degeneration, and in particular, she saves one of her sisters from being locked up in a mental institution. And she does this with a clear-sighted grace. While her father has ended up with the moniker of “King Billy,” despite being neither William nor regal, Violet is the true queen.
Tragedy, Comedy, Reviewers, etc. Later in life, after she has saved the family, after her parents have died, after she has found a job and bought a car, Violet stops to see the once demented Dawn Rose, now married and a mother, and normal enough. Dawn has no time for her that day, as she is varnishing the floors.
Violet drives off and is overcome, perhaps by a sense of isolation and loss, and she hears a voice say, “Her life is tragic.” She is still in her car, and “as if blinded” she drives the car off the road. Her life is tragic. There is no doubt about it. When her family called her home, she lost “her future, her love, her luck, and her hopes. All that was being pulled off like skin, and hurt as much…”
Her future lover, Wyck Tebbutts, stops to help and what he does is carefully disentangle her from the wild thorn rose bush in which she has gotten caught. I am reminded of Paul encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus. But it’s a reversal — Wyck is freeing her from this idea of perpetual self-sacrifice. In this case, Wyck is Violet’s Mary Magdalene.
In her New York Times review of The Progress of Love, Joyce Carol Oates refers to “A Queer Streak” as tragi-comic. I take that as a mis-reading, as if she had really bought into the idea that this was a story about hillbillies and that it was more entertainment than vision. Violet’s life is tragic and she rises above it. To me, that’s that. She learns, changes, and survives.
True religion: Most remarkably, “A Queer Streak” is an excursion into what it is that constitutes a religious life. Not since “Age of Faith” has Munro approached the question so directly.
Returning on the train from her break-up with the minister, where the young man had insulted her and had insisted that Dawn Rose must be locked up, Violet prays desperately for help. And in a flash of gold, her “desperate” prayer is answered. She realizes that if she devotes herself to her family, it will solve all her problems, not just the crazy teen-aged girls, but also her own humiliation at being jilted.
Violet had been meant to marry the handsome United minister, a man whose church was filled with badminton and high hopes, and her life was meant to be a spotlessly good example. Instead, she had to return home to save her derelict and almost worthless family. This decision is complicated by the suggestion that King Billy has been after the girls, a fact Violet must deal with but ignore, given the times. The family has sunk into the profound disorganization that is indicative of what incest might look like. Munro signals something of the sort through the fact that Violet asks the girls,“Why can’t you wear your nightgowns?”
Munro also signals the incestuous situation by the rage in the threats that the teenaged girl makes in the letters to her father, through the slatternly appearance of the girls, and through the idea that a newspaper might see them as “hillbillies.” But if Violet is to save them, she has to accept her family as they are, move back in and straighten things out.
As a Christian, even if as an accidental Christian, Violet’s boots-on-the-ground approach clearly outshines the minister’s self-involved, sorry-for-himself, jilty-guilty anger. Religious life in Munro is thus not found in organized religion but in a combination of accident, intuitive vision, compassion, and when all else fails, a get-it-done initiative that may, regardless, end up as active-self-sacrifice.
As with any Munro heroine, Violet was no saint. Part of why she went home was to hide from the humiliation of having been jilted. But even when she takes up with a married man, it appears she is acting out of kindness and courage, somewhat (although Munro does not directly say) like Jesus taking up with Mary Magdalene. I think it is no coincidence that Violet’s family name is Thorns, and that her lover Wyck Tebbutts untangles her from a wild rose bush, and that he and Violet maintain a lifelong conversation regarding roses. Ironically, though, they embrace roses as a language of sexual love rather than as an emblem of Christianity.
In “Age of Faith,” twelve-year-old Del thinks, “If God could be discovered, or recalled, everything would be safe.” Del flirts with religion, but all of her experiments with church attendance and prayer fail. In the midst of all this, she observes her younger brother facing the fact that his beloved dog must be put down. Owen’s love for Major is so pure and his need to save him so great, his agony so real, that Del is astonished at the encounter.
Owen’s pure love is real religion. Del’s flirtation with going to church and praying for proofs is not real at all. Obviously, in Munro, pure love, not the church itself, is the mark of the divine. Pure love: mysterious, rare, accidentally revealed, unpredictably located. Violet, given a hair-cut by her grand-niece in the style Joan of Arc, is crowned as the real divine.
Munro has not been tempted to cheap discussions of the divine. It is interesting that not until her audience includes New Yorkers and nihilists and minimalists and non-believers does she offer up a fable of divinity. I think the story is in conversation with Raymond Carver and his “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and I think this was a very difficult story to tell.
Regarding ambiguity: What makes this a familiar Munro story is the presence of ambiguity. The title is vivid, but its meaning is not so much clear as it is fluid.
Violet’s mother is the person who first uses the phrase. She was a woman who’d have rather been a man. She was someone whose family thought she’d never marry, someone who was never comfortable with the role of mother or housekeeper, and someone who was a lot more comfortable with an axe. It is she who says, “They’ll say we got a queer streak in this family now for sure,” as a way to explain Dawn Rose’s volcanic rage. But Aunt Ivie says it in a way that hints she knows people use the phrase to explain her as well.
As the story proceeds, the reader is not sure if the “queer streak” in the family is caused by poverty and its many effects, or by familial mental weakness, or by “the patriarchal warp imposed on women by society” (as Violet’s grand-niece suggests).
In the story’s second half, Violet realizes that her nephew Dane is gay, given that his live-in companion is a man, but Munro never says gay or queer as a way to describe Dane. Munro only glances sideways at this aspect of Dane, much as she only slightly notices the way Heather, her grand-niece, dresses, or that she and her female companion are interested in “women-ruled societies” or that both of them are dressed in a kind of combat gear. So the meaning of “a queer streak” is now given other shadings.
But this is not all Munro has to say about what might constitute a “queer streak.”
Maybe, sociologically speaking, the queer streak is only a break brought on by the weight of too much abandonment, too much loss, too much weight. That’s possible. But Munro has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure we know that there are a lot of layers to this story (the roses, the visions, the voices, the choices, the thorns) that are really mean to suggest that “a queer streak” is that rare thing — compassion.
Dane is a very sober, hard-working, good man. He had, once upon a time as a teenager, been treacherously angry with Violet for her improper affair with Wyck, but by the time he moved back to town with his lover, he had long since forgiven Violet. Or better, he had maybe even reached a stage of thankfulness to her for her bravery. Dane attends to Violet in her old age with small acts of compassion. The grand-niece and her pal are kind to Violet and respectful of her, possibly in the manner in which she had been respectful of Dawn Rose.
Possibly then, in Munro, a “queer streak” is ultimately this, the two essential constituents of love: forgiveness and compassion.