Friday, May 11, 2007

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose by Alice Munro

This is one of Munro's earliest books, written in the late 1970's. It's a series of connected short stories about Flo and her stepdaughter Rose. I liked Flo, but not Rose so much. No, that's not true. I liked Rose when she was young, and living at home with Flo. Those stories make up the first half of the book. Set in rural West Hanratty, Ontario during World War II, Flo and Rose are beset by poverty, ignorance, and the narrow-minded intolerance of their neighbors. Flo runs a grocery store on the wrong side of the tracks, and Rose, her invalid father, and her half-brother live in the back. It's a difficult time: the war is a distant, yet threatening presence. Rose struggles to avoid the bullies on the playground (the big boys) and in the classroom (the teachers), and manages to complete her entrance exams for high school. For this achievement, Flo cautions her not to get above herself. Flo is a sly survivor. She knows that the prospects for a smart girl are nothing special. She is secretly proud of Rose’s achievements, but will never say as much. The high school is only marginally better than the primary school, insofar as it has indoor plumbing and heat.

I thought this was going to end up as a classic "smart girl escapes from poverty and finds happiness" story, but it wasn't. I should have realized that a writer as good as Munro wouldn't take the obvious path. Rose makes it to university but her confidence has already been eroded. She settles for a perverse marriage to the wealthy and controlling Patrick, mostly because she hasn’t the strength to admit she doesn’t want him. Tennyson’s poem The Beggar Maid tells of the lovely, destitute maiden who is rescued by King Cophetua. But Patrick, the department store heir, is as much Rose's jailer as her rescuer. Eventually she leaves him and embarks on a series of ill-conceived careers and unfulfilling relationships. Set against the backdrop of the 1960’s I didn’t enjoy these stories as much. Rose does a lot of drinking, a lot of sleeping around, and some bad mothering. Unlike the early stories, which led up to Rose’s successful escape from West Hanratty, these stories lingered over her failures.

I am interested in the way Munro presents poverty and brutality without flinching, as if they are the most normal parts of people’s lives, which of course in some cases they are. The last few stories in the book describe Rose’s return to West Hanratty to care for the ailing Flo, who is still living in the shuttered, rundown store amid decades of trash. Rose’s conflicted relationship with her stepmother and with her childhood are never completely resolved. But a pat resolution would have cheapened the reading experience, I think.

(Book 19, 2007)


Diane Dehler said...

I never heard of that one and will look it up. Thanks for an interesting review.

Anonymous said...

I very much liked the main novella of "The Beggar Maid." I can still remember that scene where Rose sees Patrick in an airport -- they are long divorced, but he still hates her. And she wonders who could hold a grudge so fiercely, and realizes: "Patrick could, oh, Patrick could."

Rose never loved Patrick, but he did rescue her from poverty and lots of women took that sort of bargain back in the '50s, '60s.

One recurring theme in Munro, though, is this notion that people "shouldn't get above themselves." I think it's a Scottish immigrant notion, the outrage directed at those who "put on airs," or try to be the center of attention, because I noticed when I read Munro's last book (not a very good one) about her family's Scots origins that this theme began with the Old Worlders.

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, I agree with your comment about this as a recurring theme in Munro's books. It's familiar territory for me; my grandmother made it her business to make sure none of us thought too highly of ourselves. In a perverse way, it's part of what attracts me to Munro's stories.

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