“Lying Under the Apple Tree”
by Alice Munro
from The View from Castle Rock

People sometimes take a long time getting to the point. The doorknob remark on the way out of the therapist’s office. The confidence shared in the middle of the night, after a long day’s hike and the evening campfire. The friend of 50 or 60 years who calls up one night and tells you something you never knew before but actually knew all along.

On page 225 of Alice Munro’s twelfth book, The View from Castle Rock, there is this single and very important sentence about her mother, couched for the reader in the knowledge that Alice is 13, and that for some time her mother had been ill. She had gotten to the point that she was in bed much of the day, did no housework or cooking, and although she was confined to her bed, slept only briefly off and on all day and night.

Her life had stopped being securely connected at any point with the life of the family.

This sentence broke my heart. 

Because it had taken all variety of hints over hundreds and hundreds of pages to lead up to it. This sentence is the sum and substance of what Munro has been writing about for years, every which way from Sunday. And for it to appear in this particular story, at this particular place, is heartbreaking.

Alice is 13, and is being courted by a 17-year old boy. No ordinary courtship this. Secret bike rides out in the country and clandestine meetings lead to passionate encounters which Alice, at 13, only half understands, but which she adores. Only to discover that he is similarly being passionately courted by a nearly 30-year-old woman whose life is horses, horses, horses, and for whom he works.

Alice has been lying to her parents about where she has been going every Sunday for probably three months. This has been a very intense and heady experience. Now, betrayed and alone, her father is at the foundry and her mother is not . . . reliable in any way at all.

Alice had been terribly betrayed by this older boyfriend, a boyfriend she might have never been allowed to see if her mother or father had been alert and on the case. And then, when Alice did pursue the boy and was terribly hurt, her mother was completely unavailable for any kind of support. Not only did her mother not notice that anything was suddenly amiss with Alice, she had become so reliably unconnected to the family that Alice would have hardly believed anything she said.

I am thinking of the role of mothers who are not disconnected. In “Illinois,” the boy who has abducted and hidden his baby sister is aware that under normal circumstances his mother can sniff out a lie. Would that she could have. Would that Alice’s mother had either the temperament or the strength to sniff out a lie. In which case 13-year-old Alice might have never gone after 17- or 18-year-old Russell Craik. And she would have never been so deeply betrayed, and she might have never become so estranged from the idea of real boys.

And so:

. . . it was in books that I would find, for the next few years, my lovers . . . . It was not as if I had given up on passion. Passion, indeed, wholehearted, even destructive passion, was what I was after. Demand and submission. I did not exclude a certain kind of brutality. But no confusion, no double-dealing, or sleazy sort of surprise or humiliation. I could wait, and all my due would come to me, I thought, when I was full-blown.

I am struck by the appearance of this important word: “submission.” I think I could write a book on the problems that Alice’s heroines have with the concept of submission, and I could not write that book unless I also considered how important being “recognized” is these women, and also how important it becomes for them to have an “authentic” life, that they be true to their gifts. And of course, these impulses are all in conflict with each other and with reality.

My heart is broken once again when I realize that “submission” is an idea that Alice had had since she was 13. Life is a very, very long journey.

There is a lot more to “Lying Under the Apple Tree.” Lying, for one. Sexual initiation, for another. Layers of sexual predation, and how predation leads to predation. There is a whiff of “Vandals,” here. A whiff of Evil, for another, especially as related to our various gardens of Eden and various snakes in the grass shedding various skins, over and over again.

But I want to remark upon the obvious. “Lying Under the Apple Trees” is a version of the fabulous early story “Baptizing.” I imagine many people have written about these two stories and how and why they are related, different, and the same. I have not read any of these treatments, although comparing and contrasting the two stories call to me.

I try to figure out Alice on my own. If she could work on a story for two or three months, the least I can do is to meet it half way with my full attention. The least I can do is read her without a crib and encounter her head-on.

She seems, with her ambitious and damaged mother, a relative of mine, a cousin, or an aunt. She seems, with her “entirely disjointed and dissimilar personalities” to be almost like a sister, as I am sure she seems to many other of her readers as well. I want to know whatever it is she has to tell me direct from her, no interference.

“Lying Under the Apple Tree” is a magnificent memoir. I surely hope that the real Russell Craik read it and recognized himself. It is too much to hope that the real Miriam McAlpin lived long enough to read it and recognize herself.

Note: Lying is an issue throughout in The View from Castle Rock. In the title story, Munro quotes an ancestor who emigrated from Scotland in 1820 accusing Scots poets James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott as being liars and making a lot of money from such a “loquarative” trade as writing. Alice remarks:

And I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention.

The reader of course, is left to deduce for him or herself how it is a writer actually conveys the truth, what methods of selection are used, what is included and what is left out, what structures created and what suggestions made, what wording chosen, what tone established, what allusions selected, what information left out, what images suggest – the combination of which finally convey the truth.

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