This is the title of a short story, and also the title of an anthology of eleven Alice Munro stories published 2001.
The title story is exquisite. I’m going to trawl through it, as usual, looking for specific wonderfulness.
Two mischievous girls in smalltown Ontario decide to play a trick on a housekeeper. They write fake love letters from Sabitha’s father with little thought of consequences. They don’t expect the housekeeper to take leave of her position, move in with the father, get married and have a baby. The girls are never found out, but even after Sabitha has grown out of playing dirty tricks, she feels her own trick backfired somewhat. She never meant a bit of fun to result in the existence of a half-brother.
The viewpoint character changes with the scenes, not easy to achieve in a short story, though it can be argued that Munro’s short stories are something more akin to novellas.
1. The station agent has a terse exchange with a plain looking woman with bunched up teeth that look ready for an argument.
2. The woman is Johanna. We follow her now, as she goes, reluctantly, to buy an expensive dress suit. ‘”It’s likely what I’ll be married in,” said Johanna.’
3. We continue to follow Johanna as she leaves the dress shop and sees Mr McCauley across the street. At this point we are told how Johanna is the housekeeper for the McCauleys, and chief caregiver of his grand-daughter, Sabitha. Sabitha’s mother died a few years back.
4. Mr McCauley finds the note left by Johanna, informing him of her resignation and reasons for taking some of his furniture with her on the train. He visits the shoe shop, where he gets talking to the shoemaker and the daughter, Edith.
5. Turns out Edith is a friend of Sabitha. Now we’re at Edith’s house where we learn a little more about Edith.
6. Backstory turns to Sabitha now, and the mischief she and Edith have been up to: The pair have written fake letters to Johanna from Sabitha’s father. Johanna is led to believe that this is the beginning of a love affair. The reader knows that Johanna has given up her job, is poorly-educated, plain, and will soon be in great trouble when she gets to her destination and all is revealed.
7. A series of letters – some made up by the girls, some genuine, from Johanna. Just enough of the letters are included in the story to set up the unfortunate situation – or perhaps this was all of them. The reader doesn’t know. These letters are interspersed with details about Edith and Sabitha – two smalltown girls who are heading for trouble and who have not learnt to care about other people’s feelings.
8. ‘When Johanna got off the train there was nobody there to meet her.’ But she goes to Sabitha’s father’s anyhow. The father has by now been portrayed as an unreliable sort, reliant upon his father-in-law for money. Johanna finds the man very sick in bed, so she tends to him. She is a useful person, well-adjusted to this sort of care.
7. Eventually, POV switches to the sick father (Ken Boudreau) as he regains consciousness. He wonders what this woman is doing in his house, but doesn’t question the matter. He is glad to have the help.
8. Back story about Ken, about how he may be useless with money, but he is a generous sort. He lends money to friends, which is how he often finds himself short. By this point, both Johanna and Ken have been redeemed somewhat in the reader’s eyes.
9. Viewpoint shifts between Ken and Johanna and we see that they are a very good match. Johanna likes to sort people out, and Ken likes a good woman to sort him out. We also see why neither of them mentions the non-existent letters crafted by Ken’s daughter and friend.
10. ‘Mr McCauley died about two years after Johanna’s departure.’ With this sentence, we’ve been catapulted forward two years. This event provides a very good event around which to base a kind of epilogue: Johanna and Ken are married now, and have had a baby called Omar. At the funeral, we see that Sabitha and Edith have grown apart, have changed in appearance as well as in attitude, and neither of them can work out how their mischievous ways went undiscovered. ‘For where, in the list of things she planned to achieve in her life, was there any mention of her being responsible for the existence on earth of a person called Omar?’
Munro makes use of direct dialogue interspersed with indirect dialogue in order to keep the pace of the story moving along.
The station master often tried a little teasing with women, especially the plain ones who seemed to appreciate it.
“Furniture?” he said, as if nobody had ever had such an idea before. “Well now. What kind of furniture are we talking about?”
A dining-room table and six chairs. A full bedroom suite, a sofa, a coffee table, end tables, a floor lamp. Also a china cabinet and a buffet.
“What nationality would that be?”
She said she didn’t know.
It would have been more economical for the woman’s response to be direct dialogue: “I don’t know.” So why does Munro choose indirect dialogue for much of Johanna Parry’s speech in the first scene? Because it’s not yet time to get too close to the woman. Our empathy is supposed to lie with the station master, a kind, familiar character, trying his best to accommodate quite unreasonable demands from this bossy, unpleasant woman. Later, the reader will learn of Johanna Parry’s good points: she is a very good and loyal carer. But for now, it is best to stick to indirect dialogue, as if the station master is recounting this encounter to someone else, which indeed he does, later, when Mr McCauley wonders what’s happened to all the furniture that’s disappeared from his house.
Munro’s dialogue tags focus less on tone of voice and facial expression, more on the impression created. In other words, she does not rely heavily upon cinematic dialogue tags. She interprets for us. This is economical writing, and Munro’s observations are wryly observed. We know exactly what Munro means, because we’ve encountered similar people ourselves.
She spoke to him in a loud voice as if he was deaf or stupid, and there was something wrong with the way she pronounced her words.
She nodded as if he should just get on and give her the ticket.
The woman monkeyed around til she found the label, then read off a description of the material that Johanna wasn’t really listening to because she had caught at the hem to examine the workmanship.
The phrase ‘monkeyed around’ is particularly apt, because this is Johanna’s observation. She has little time for monkeying around, and is shrewd enough to see straight through a sales pitch. The phrase ostensibly belongs to a narrator, but here Munro achieves ‘deep penetration’ (Orson Scott Card’s words, not mine).
When a word is pronounced in a specific way and Munro needs us to know about it, this is how she sometimes does it:
Johanna said, “No.”
“Don’t you find it clique-y?”
“Hard for an outsider to break in, is what I mean.”
The apt and economical characterisation lies in well-chosen details.
Johanna: (organised, prepared, practical)
“I might as well go ahead and try it on.”
This was what she’d come prepared for, after all. Clean underwear and fresh talcum powder under her arms.
Mr McCauley: (absent-minded)
She saw Mr McCauley walking in the opposite direction up the other side of the street. That was all right – even if he had met her head-on he would never have noticed the box she carried.
Edith: (sarcastic, old-beyond-her-years)
Mr McCauley said, “Honor thy mother and father, that thy days may be long in the -“
Edith said something not for him to hear. She said, “Shoe Repair Shop.”
See also: The Last Book I Loved (hint: It’s this one) by Emma Borges-Scott at The Rumpus.