Also see: The Beggar Maid – Notes
This was first published in 1978 by Canadian author Alice Munro. It was selected for the Booker Short list in 1980, when Rites of Passage by William Golding won. Although Munro won the Booker International Award in 2009.
**Munro’s writing has established her as “one of our greatest contemporary writers of fiction,” or, as Cynthia Ozick put it, “our Chekhov.” the Great Wiki entry
This is the second book I’ve read by her – it’s not the last. One of my favorite stories of all time is by Munro – “Too Much Happiness” – from a collection by the same name – 2009. That one is about Sofia Kovalevskaya – a famous European mathematician – the story is basically true – Munro adds feelings to the factual details of Kovalevskaya’s life. Munro works with feelings – nothing much “happens,” plot-wise, in her stories, but she nails the feelings.
One of many questions we have about Munro’s stories is are the collections really just stories or are they novels – or, take it another step, are the tales themselves novels disguised as short stories? The stories all concern one young woman, Rose, whose mother dies and her father remarries, Flo is Rose’s stepmother, and she grows up in poverty. From information in later stories it appears this chronological collection of stories begins in 1930 or so when Rose is about 10 or 11.
1. Royal Beatings
Rose is living with her father, a furniture repairer , stepmother, Flo and step-brother Brian, in serious poverty in the lower-class (but not the worst) section of a rather smallish rural town. Everything in the story serves to emphasize the poor and hard-scrabble nature of their lives – their attitudes and speech as well as the material reality are poor – the school is poor. Rose gets “royal beatings” from her father when Rose says – but Rose has her way of “asking for it.” And then things smooth over. The essence of these first two stories is grotesque or “Southern Ontario gothic” (similar to Southern Gothic). Flo is very demanding and “superior” – prudish, enjoys the gore and gossipy side of small town life. She tells of horrendous murders and other crimes. The story ends with a twist.
“Rose knew a lot of people who wished they had been born poor, and hadn’t been. So she would queen it over them, offering various scandals and bits of squalor from her childhood.”
That little tid-bit is a foreshadowing of the idea Rose comes out of this squalor all right. It’s also a hint that Rose may not be the most reliable narrator – but who is narrating? It’s a third person – seems to be from Rose’s point of view.
This story is about school – the teacher, the physical plant, the neighbor man, the other kids and of course, Flo’s reaction. I think Rose must be about age 12 or so. There’s a lot of abuse in this chapter, too – this time it’s sexual and in school – walking home is dangerous. Flo tells Rose more horror stories and disapproves of everything. A girl named Cora is central and Cora is in even worse shape than Rose, raised by hard-working grandparents, but she’s “privileged” somehow – better clothes, very popular. Rose “falls in love” with Cora on some level. She learns how to lie, sneak, steal, survive.
3. Half a Grapefruit
Rose goes to high school where the abuse and upmanship is still bad. Rose says she had a “half-a-grapefruit” for breakfast. Rose is bringing stories to Flo now – stories about the “slutty” Ruby and other goings on at school. And Flo tells stories of her own past. Rose is a scholar of sorts which Flo despises but her father slyly admires. More horror – more foreshadowing although it’s almost a flash forward o a reunion and dealing with Flo in age.
Such beautiful writing – “She believed he was prepared for Westminster Hospital, the old soldiers’ hospital, prepared for its masculine gloom, its yellowing curtains pulled around the bed, its spotty basins. And for what followed. She understood that he would never be with her more than at the present moment. The surprise to come was that he wouldn’t be with her less.”
4. Wild Swans
Rose is growing up, going to the city by train alone for supplies. Flo has warned her. An older man sits by her and his hand touches her leg. Rose has a good imagination – “This was disgrace, this was beggary.” (The title)
5. The Beggar Maid
Rose goes to college on a scholarship – she meets a very rich young man who falls in love with her – ((See NOTES page). She is not after the money, she’s after the love he’s offering, the adoration. She meets his family, he meets hers. More foreshadowing – flash forward.
6. Rose and Patrick are married and she meets Clifford, a violinist and the husband of her good friend Jocelyn whom she met in the maternity ward. Rose and Clifford come from the same “side of the tracks” while Jocelyn has more in common with Richard. Rose falls for Clifford and is betrayed. The ending, again, flashes to contemporary – 1970s?
They’re divorced, Anna stays with Patrick – then goes with Rose to a small town in the mountains where Anna is having an affair with a married man back in Colorado. But luck is just not with Rose although it certainly does seem to be with Anna.
8. Simon’s Luck
Rose is working as a drama teacher in a community college – she was an actress for awhile. She goes to a party and “tells stories,” is verbally accosted by a young man, meets Simon, takes Simon home for the weekend and is stood up. A fortune teller is included in this story – is it about power?
Rose has to put Flo in a nursing home – The story goes back and forth a bit in terms of time segment. Flo spells words in the home.
10. Who Do You Think You Are? (old title)
Brian and Rose meet and laugh over memories of growing up in West Haggarty – Milton Homer is the focus – “the village idiot.” He lives with his aunts, who are very conservative,’The Chinese are heathens…That’s why they have beggars.” (1953) Another character is Ralph, a boy in Rose’s class.
Themes – superiority, inferiority, poverty, wealth, intelligence, ignorance, abuse, love, begging? charity? aging, what your “things” say about you – and your speech, etc. memories, past and present combine, some things change, some don’t – Who are you really close to?