Because we discussed “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize and The New Yorker republished the story in 2013 (see here), Betsy and I are finishing our venture through Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage with “Queenie,” a story that was originally published in the July 30, 1998 issue of The London Review of Books. That version, which you can read online for free here, is similar but quite different from the final version published in the book three years later. As I’ve admitted before, since The New Yorker has, to my understanding, a right of first refusal for any story Munro writes, I always wonder about the quality of something they presumably chose not to publish, though I’m sure at times there are other factors at play. I found “Queenie” quite wonderful, though.
The story begins with a bit of a warning. Queenie is telling Chrissy, our narrator, to “maybe” not call her Queenie any more because, well, “Stan doesn’t like it.” Chrissy is taken aback, and not necessarily because her step-sister is no longer going by the name she went by for the her first eighteen years, but because Queenie is now calling Mr. Vorguilla Stan. It doesn’t make sense, even though it of course makes sense: Queenie, or Lena, as she now wants to be called, is married to Mr. Vorguilla now and has been for the past year and a half.
Cleary there’s some strange and unsettling dynamic at work between Queenie and her husband. First, there is the tentative tone Queenie employs, presumably to keep Chrissy, as well as herself, on Stan’s good side: “Maybe you better stop calling me that.” Then theirs the dissonance Chrissy points out when Queenie calls her husband Stan, though why shouldn’t she call her husband by his first name. Just why on earth would she call him Mr. anything? With this, Munro suggests so much more than she has to explicitly state. We know already that there is some past relationship with Mr. Vorguilla, and it was not one that naturally led to him becoming Queenie’s own Stan, let alone to her becoming Lena.
The remainder of the story takes us back in the past, so we know how it came to this, and into the future, where Queenie and Chrissy continue to take diverging paths. Stan, we learn, was a neighbor, the piano teacher, and so Queenie and Chrissy of course got to know him as they grew up as Mr. Vorguilla. When Mrs. Vorguilla dies, it’s less than a week before he and Queenie elope. Reuniting for the first time since, Chrissy is still understandably shocked by the way that world shifted, and not for the better. Just look how Chrissy describes the change in Queenie’s physical appearance.
Her hair was dyed black and puffed up around her face in whatever style it was that in those days succeeded as the beehive. Its beautiful corn-syrup color — gold on top and dark underneath — as well as its silky length, was forever lost. She wore a yellow print dress that skimmed her body and ended inches above her knees. The Cleopatra lines drawn heavily around her eyes, and the purply shadow, made her eyes seem smaller, not larger, as if they were deliberately hiding. She had pierced ears now, gold hoops swinging from them.
The line about her eyes deliberately hiding is powerful, but I like how Chrissy seems to walk back just a touch from such a bold pronouncement by adding a lighter codicil, albeit one that almost sounds scornful, about her earrings.
When we meet him, Stan is controlling and abusive, as we knew he would be. Chrissy, of course, wants nothing to do with the Stan-shaped part of Queenie’s life. Their relationship taints any thoughts Chrissy had about marriage in general.
This reunion is temporary and there are not many more throughout the life of these two step-sisters. Queenie disappears again, and Chrissy always looks for her. Who knows, of course, how often she may have seen this sister who she can no longer recognize.
“Queenie” is a variation on “Floating Bridge” and “Post and Beam.” There is yet another entitled husband who treats a beautiful girl like property. There is another girl who loses her mother and gains a compelling and resourceful older “sister” in the process.
Queenie was really something.
She looked like . . . she didn’t have to take a back seat to anybody.
Queenie, however, makes a fatal mistake: she runs away at eighteen with the music teacher.
The music teacher may have seemed very grand at the time, but he turned into someone who was capable of mocking Queenie, gas-lighting her, and giving her the silent treatment. (One particular incident was over a cake Queenie had made, which reminds me of Jinny and Neal in “Floating Bridge” and the incident of the gingerbread.) In the end, Queenie runs away, probably with another man, and is never seen again.
Years later, the narrator Chrissy misses the magnetic Queenie. Efforts are made to find Queenie, but to no avail. Chrissy imagines, late in life, now and then, to have seen Queenie.
Until I came to my senses and convinced myself that it wasn’t possible, and that whoever was or was not Queenie had left me behind.
Running away features heavily in Munro. Sometimes it is a necessity, but sometimes it is merely replacing one frying pan with another. In this story, there is an emphasis put on the person who gets left behind, the person who is left to wonder what in the world happened to the princess who didn’t have to take a back seat to anybody.
In this case, Queenie’s story is most likely how Chrissy keeps her balance.
The story of the husband and the cake, the silent treatment and the gas-lighting, is a phenomenal tour de force. Good on Queenie. Running away from this husband was the only choice. Whether Chrissy had any other choices we are left to ponder.
To a degree, the story is an investigation into the options a beautiful girl has when she is poor, naïve, and makes a very poor choice. There are two kinds of jail in Munro: the kind imposed on you by class and by jerks like Queenie’s husband, and then there are the jails you impose on yourself. In the end, Queenie opted to break out and the reader couldn’t have been more relieved.