The bear went over the mountain, eh?
Click the title of this blog post for a link to the short story.
When Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this fall I was eager to read some of her work. I had seen quite a lot of literary buzz about her most recent (and, supposedly, final) short story collection Dear Life. Last spring I exchanged my unused frequent flier points – it seems one never has enough of these to buy an actual, you know, ticket – for more magazine subscriptions than I care to admit. The New Yorker was among them but it has since, sadly, expired. Much to my delight, while browsing the New Yorker website this morning looking for those rare freebie articles, I had the good fortune to stumble across this sucker punch of a short story, first published in the December 27, 1999 issue of the magazine. That year I was 11 years old and hated the fifth grade, but that’s a story for a separate post on a different blog altogether.
All that I knew about Munro’s writing before reading “TBWOTM” was that her stories focus almost exclusively on the lives of ordinary people living in small-town Ontario and that her characters and settings are deceptively simple to the inattentive reader. “TBWOTM” opens with Grant and Fiona as college students who get married almost on a whim. Fiona proposed to Grant asking, “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?” Fast forward around forty years and Fiona, whose memory has deteriorated, is now committed to a care facility called Meadowlake. During her first thirty days at Meadowlake Fiona is not allowed outside visitors. When Grant returns to visit her, Fiona has forgotten who he is but has become close to a man named Aubrey with whom she often plays cards. Aubrey is at Meadowlake on a short-term stay while is wife goes on vacation in Florida with her sister. Fiona tells Grant, she “knew him years and years ago. He worked in the store. The hardware store where my grandpa used to shop.” Munro is not clear whether their relationship is sexual or whether the two patients have simply become close.
Grant, a retired professor of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic literature, spends some of his now copious alone time thinking about the many affairs he has had with former students. A good number of his lovers were “Married women who had started going back to school. Not with the idea of qualifying for a better job, or for any job, but simply to give themselves something more interesting to think about than their usual housework and hobbies.” In an ironic twist of events (I am beginning to see why Munro’s stories are said to be deceptively ordinary) Fiona is devastated when Aubrey’s wife Marian takes him back home and she still does not remember who Grant is. Eager to help his inconsolable wife any way that he can, Grant tracks down Marian and visits her at her well cared for home on an otherwise distressed suburban street.
Marian is initially hostile to Grant, thinking that he has come because he is jealous of the potential romantic relationship between their mentally frail spouses. Grant assures Marian that this is not the case, but that his only concern is getting Fiona’s spirits up so that she will not be moved to the dreaded “second floor.” Over coffee and gingerbread cookies, which Marian somewhat aggressively states are homemade, as if Grant would be foolish to have assumed otherwise, have a discussion about reuniting their spouses for Fiona’s benefit. Marian is at first hesitant to take Aubrey and visits to Meadowlake and says that she cannot afford to place him there permanently. “TBWOTM” concludes with Grant bringing Aubrey, whom Fiona no longer remembers, to visit. However, she indicates that she may remember Grant, saying, “You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.” Grant and Marian’s relationship, a continuation of Grant’s philandering habits, has saved Fiona. How’s that for irony?
This is were the story’s title, taken from the popular children’s song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” comes into play. In the song, the bear goes over the mountain to “see what he could see.” But, of course, all he sees is the other side of the mountain. By introducing the reader to Grant and Fiona as young college students and then somersaulting rapidly into their old age, the reader has essentially gone “over the hill” or “over the mountain” with them. Additionally, Munro changes the verb in the children’s rhyme from “went” to “came.” What is the significance of this shift in direction? By using “came,” Munro implies that the reader of this story that alternates between the present and various points in the past, is not on the safe, youthful side of the mountain, but the old age side. The reader comes away with the unsettling conclusion that he or she has already come over the mountain and seen all that there was to see.
Alice Munro, consider me a fan.