by Alice Munro
from The View from Castle Rock

“Illinois” is one of the five experimental stories which Alice Munro wrote following a period of research into her family history. It’s not a typical Munro story. At about 22 pages, it is slight, with little that is intricate or occult. It has the feel of very good young adult literature. It is my favorite of the five Part One stories of The View from Castle Rock.

It’s about 1840, and a young Scottish woman has immigrated to Illinois with her husband and four little children, one of whom is a baby. They are there a short while, and a day comes when two things happen: she has another baby and her husband dies. The bereaved woman appeals to her husband’s brother for help. He drives a team of oxen from Canada to Joliet to fetch her and the children.

We learn extremely little about the young woman’s interior life, and we don’t even know her name. It is as if she has been reduced to an elemental existence by her husband’s death and her subsequent extreme vulnerability. She seems to exist in a stunned silence, from within which she is just barely able to function. 

What interests me deeply about the story is that the young father’s death appears to throw his oldest son, who probably is no more than ten, into a trance-like state. The boy imagines that his father’s spirit is all around him and in him. I have a strange affinity for this idea. When my own mother died, for about a week I had the keen sense of her spirit somehow resting with us, all around us, lingering. The difference, however, is that the boy’s state is akin to an angry trance. The uncle wonders if he is all there.

This trance reminds me of the trance in “Powers” that 70-year-old Nancy willingly enters in pursuit of the truth about Ollie and Tessa and Wilf and herself. In part, Nancy’s trance state is her conscience following a thread to the truth about her own liability and responsibility regarding the tragedies of Tessa’s life. But Munro also suggests in “Powers” that Nancy’s trance is akin to the writer’s trademark openness, to the writer’s access to intuition and creativity. But in the boy in “Illinois” there is a derangement of conscience or maybe an absence of conscience. He is faintly aware of his mother’s ability to intuit the truth of his lies and his motives. The reader is left with a sense of foreboding about the boy and his character, something the uncle questions as well.

What was Munro’s object? It seems to me she was trying to grasp how very profound the effect can be upon a child when a parent dies young. I am sympathetic to this line of inquiry and her open-ended result. Both my grandmother and my husband’s grandmother appear to have been stunted by the deaths of their mothers. Both grandmothers appeared detached from motherhood in one way or another, the one depressed, the other angry. I have often wondered what the real effect on them was in childhood.

Munro’s answer is that the death is, at the time, a stunning and deranging blow. A blow that, for a time, limits a person’s capacities. Whether it’s for a time or for forever. That’s it. That’s her thesis. And it seems to me profoundly just right.

There is the corollary question, however, regarding the profound impact of the withdrawal of a mother’s love, whether it be caused by widowhood, another baby, post-partum depression, loss of place in the world, or mental derangement of any kind. The result in the boy seems to be a profound anger that is almost unmarked by conscience. A bottomless anger that, if lifelong, would probably be directed at women.

A second question she seems to be investigating is how to indicate what a deeply connected marriage might have been like and how it could be remembered before it was suddenly struck down by a death. The boy remembers the “joy” in her mother’s face before his father died. The woman remembers and relives how the man thought, how he didn’t like people who didn’t know what they were talking about, but how he was interested in what people thought about things, and how he had brought books and writing into her life.

The woman remembers how an exchange of two letters between the man and herself had shamelessly risked everything to see if maybe a marriage might be possible. She doesn’t have much, but she has one of those precious letters with her, just as she has her children with her.

In the box were Will’s pistol and such papers as Andrew needed concerning the house and land, and the letter Colonel Munro had written before they left Scotland, and another letter that Mary herself had sent to Will, before they were married.

About that letter, she remembers a conversation she and Will had had when he later showed her that letter, a letter in which she promised him that if he should “come courting some moonlit night, he would be preferred above all other.” As if she had been waiting for the letter he had sent her from the highlands, after the three years it took him to get established.

What a chance to take she said when he showed her that. Did I have no pride?

Nor I, he said.

Munro is talking about the deep attachments that are possible between man and wife.

And she is also talking about the DNA in the family documents. The power of the written self. The family habit of it. I still have the letter of thanks my father wrote to the minister after my mother died. Proof. I still have the vivid memory of the letter I never saw but the letter I know that my father put in my mother’s coffin. The family habit of the written word. The nature of the family line.

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