In this coming-of-age story set in rural Canada, Alice Munro presents the astute and keenly observant daughter of Ben Jordan, an unnamed and as yet unformed girl who begins to cross from youth to adulthood and learns the meaning of the “chance meeting that is not chance,” and the bargains that adults make with life. Through her first-person narration, we learn about the reduced circumstances of her father, Ben, who lost his silver fox farm during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They now live in Tuppet, an old town on Lake Huron, where sidewalks are cracked by the gnarled old roots of trees. Yards are bare and void of beauty, and even the evening games of the children are “ragged, dissolving” (2). Ben and his wife yearn for their more prosperous past and grapple with their eroded dreams in different ways. The characters lead lives of struggle to prevent things from falling apart or fading away. The mother works at her sewing to remake and refashion worn clothing. Ben tries to entertain his family with stories about his experiences as a traveling salesman for Walker Brothers.
Water appears as a symbolic device several times throughout the story. Munro’s use of water or its shadowy illusions foreshadows and emphasizes key moments of realization. For example, Munro begins and ends the story with the lake. At the start the narrator is asked by her father, Ben, to go to see whether the lake “is still there” (1). And at the end, the narrator observes that “the sky becomes gently overcast, as always, nearly always, on summer evenings by the Lake” (18). In the midst of this hot summer setting, Ben offers to take his daughter and son with him on his rounds. He takes them through and out of town, past boarded-up factories and defeated jumbles of sheds. The narrator wonders about changes in her life and anguishes over the way “the tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility” (3).
Early in the story, she rails against the changes she senses were inevitable in her parents’ lives and those she is increasingly aware will occur in her own. These sentiments are defined through her assessment of the lake, which she wishes would “be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown” (3). She relates the family’s loss of the farm and her mother’s longing for days when, regardless of struggle, they could see promise and potential and implicitly contrasts the mother of that past with the present one, who escapes into headaches and concludes that her life may be borne only “with dignity, with bitterness, with no reconciliation” (4).
The children journey further into the world of their father, a place where he sings silly made-up songs and where “bottles in the suitcases clink together and gurgle promisingly” (10). He takes them to a land that is “flat, scorched, empty” (7), where car seats become benches on front porches, barns turn gray, and sheds fall down. In such a landscape, it is impossible for her to play simple children’s coloring games with her brother because there are no purple and no green. After an incident in which Ben is nearly doused by a basin full of urine poured from an upstairs window by an irate customer, they leave his territory and the brother asks poignantly, “Is this the way to Sunshine?” (10).
They go to the home of Nora Cronin, an old flame of Ben’s. Nora, wearing a farmer’s straw hat “through which pricks of sunlight penetrate” (11), greets them and invites them into the cool house that she shares with her blind mother. The daughter listens and learns that, since their shared youth, Nora has kept track of Ben. Nora briefly leaves and returns, now smelling of cologne and wearing a dress of green and yellow that, Ben’s daughter notices, “is flowered more lavishly than anything my mother owns” (12). Nora offers the children refreshment and uses cold water to make an orange drink from Walker Brother syrup. She realizes that Nora is Catholic; according to her aunt Jane, these are people who dig “with the wrong foot” (14). In Nora’s presence, Ben reveals himself to his daughter as someone she has never seen. He behaves in ways she has been told he does not act. She reveals, for example, that “one of the things my mother has told me in our talks together is that my father never drinks whisky. But I see he does. He drinks whisky and he talks of people whose names I have never heard before” (15). She is surprised to hear Nora ask Ben to sing, and, although he declines, she has the ability to make him laugh. When she asks him to dance, Ben gently responds by saying, “Not me, Nora” (17).
When at last they take their leave, Ben promises to return if he can. He invites Nora to visit, but his daughter notices that Nora does not repeat the directions he offers. The daughter notes the tacit understanding that the encounter with Nora will not be mentioned at home and clearly understands that this is only one of many “things not to be mentioned” (18). At the story’s conclusion, her brother asks their father to sing again, but now Ben is “fresh out of songs” (18). The daughter has learned that her father, and by extension adulthood, is “like a landscape . . . with all kinds of weather, and distances you cannot imagine” (18).
Munro, Alice. “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” In Dance of the Happy Shades and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1998.