Reading Alice Munro: “Walker Brothers Cowboy”

In the first paragraph of the first story in Alice Munro’s first collection of short stories, a little girl takes her father’s hand and the two of them wander away as her brother begs them to bring him an ice cream cone. Today that sort of beginning feels ominous: what’s going to happen? A father taking his young daughter aside, so late in the evening that her brother will be asleep when they return — in 2021, this would only be bad news. 

But this story was written in the 1960s, and it is set in the 1930s — almost a century ago. And it’s Alice Munro. Nothing as fraught and blatant as abuse is on the horizon. Instead, her father — the “Walker Brothers Cowboy” of the title — is simply showing her the world about her: the boarded-up factory, the vacant lot, the tramps around the docks, the Great Lake that has endured for centuries, pushed into shape by ancient ice.

The father, we learn, used to own a fox farm and now is a salesman. He goes door-to-door selling “pharmaceuticals,” treatments for lice and “natural” pills and bottles which must really be drugs and alcohol in disguise. He is a cheerful man, upbeat, often making up songs about his day. In my head, he looks like Marshall from How I Met Your Mother, who—fans will remember—had the same musical habit.

The father does not seem to feel the shame of losing the farm, but certainly his wife, the little girl’s mother, does. She dresses up to go to the shop, and makes excuses to keep her children from playing with the neighbors. “It does not matter that we were poor before,” the little girl explains, for “that was a different sort of poverty.” She is too tired, and her head aches too much, to sing nonsense songs or go on walks for fun.

All of this, the first few pages of the story, is just table-setting, a basic sketch of the family’s life. The heart of the story is a specific afternoon, when the father asks the mother to go with him on his sales circuit. The mother will not go, and so instead the father takes both children with him. He sings songs to amuse them, he tells dad jokes, and the unnamed narrator suddenly breaks the fourth wall, seemingly overcome with nostalgia. “The nineteen-thirties,” she says. “How much this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon, seem to me to belong to that one decade in time, just as my father’s hat does, his bright flared tie, our car with its wide running board. . . “

After the rounds there is one more stop. The father takes his children to meet the Cronins, Nora and her mother. Nora and the father — how are they connected? We never learn, although it’s clear they knew each other well. The reader suspects they were lovers at one time but it is never made clear. And maybe the little girl, now grown up and the narrator of the story, simply doesn’t know the truth of the father’s bond with Nora. Maybe she was a crush; maybe he was; maybe they were simply childhood friends. 

The Cronins’ house bursts with interesting devices and colors: “a gramophone and a pump organ and a picture on the wall of Mary, Jesus’ mother . . . in shades of bright blue and pink with a spiked band of light around her head.” Nora offers forbidden fascination. “I think of what my grandmother and my Aunt Tena, over in Dungannon, used to always say to indicate that somebody was a Catholic,” remembers the girl. “So-and-so digs with the wrong foot, they would say. She digs with the wrong foot. That was what they would say about Nora.”

The little girl watches as her father shares a drink with Nora. She knows it is alcohol, although her mother has told her that her father does not drink. Her father does not seem to be a different person with Nora than he is with her mother — we have seen him singing at home, seen him trying to make the mother laugh with his antics — but Nora responds differently and that response seems to show her father in a different light. Nora and the girl dance, but the father refuses to dance with Nora. The mood turns — Munro communicates this in a terse exchange of pleasantries. The father gives Nora directions to their home but she does not repeat them back. She will never visit.

On the way home the father does not sing, even after his son asks him to.. “I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon,” the narrator says, “darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.”

The father and his children go home, and the sky is overcast, the color drained from the day, as if Dorothy is returning to Kansas.

The reader’s natural sympathy is with the father: he is so attentive to his children, he bears his social comedown with such good-humored grace. At the Cronins’ house both his longing for a different time and a different version of himself and also his circumspect loyalty to his wife are plain to see. But the mother’s frustration with her changed circumstances and with her husband’s blithe disregard of her distress is palpable and relatable as well. This marriage does not work for anyone, and on subsequent reads you begin to realize that this is as much the father’s fault as the mother’s.

Still, although I’d love to read a story with the mother at the center, Munro’s interest here is in the father, and in what life has done to him. “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” he asks his daughter. Really, the reader realizes at last, he is verifying his own existence. If anything was signified by that ominous beginning, it was the erosion of the father’s personality, the way it seems, in retrospect, that he was trying to hold onto fragments of himself.

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