[Sometimes, you make promises you cannot keep. Just days after I hit "publish" on the NaBloPoMo post, I found myself with no time to write a blog post. Sometimes, work & life & friends & colleagues simply have to take precedence. This is me trying to catch up in retrospect].
The Beggar Maid (also published under the title Who do you think you are?) is a short story collection that unites ten stories surrounding the characters of Flo and Rose, with Rose taking centre stage in most of them. Throughout the stories, you watch Rose growing up, coming into her own in some ways, and still being confused and a little lost in others (aren’t we all?) Alice Munro does not offer us romanticised visions of life. But she does provide poignant and touching stories, that sometimes hit very close to home, and sometimes allow a semi-detached but caring reading of the (mis)fortunes of Flo and Rose. And every single story of the ten deserves the particular attention of the reader. Perhaps even a rereading before the story can truly be grasped.
I read this short story collection encouraged by Buried in Print’s project in which she goes through all short story collections of Alice Munro, tackling one collection every few months. I want to gentle point you to her blog for a more in-depth discussion of the stories separately from each other. Unfortunately, it has been a while since I have read the collection, so my recollections are much more general and much of my specific thoughts on particular stories have been lost. I guess this means I have to reread them already..
What makes this collection easier to approach than some of Munro’s other collections (or so I have been told), is that the stories are interconnected. They deal with the same characters, namely Rose and Flo, singling out different moments of their lives. I noticed that the longer time I spent with these characters, the more I started to appreciate them and Munro’s stories. After finishing the first story, “Royal Beatings”, I really didn’t know what to make of it. It all seemed rather dark and bleak, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about the characters, and if I even cared. Slowly, while reading through the other stories, some of those feelings were lost. Yes, the stories are bleak at times, but it is hard not to fall into sympathy with Rose. And moreover, I slowly learned to appreciate Munro’s style. Munro is not an author to read in a rush. Buried in Print’s approach might truly be the best one: to dip in and out of these collections on set times, not to sit down with a collection and finish them in a day. Because most of all, Alice Munro is about the detail. Sometimes, small paragraphs can be very striking, and they might just make the story for you as a reader. And as soon as I started to appreciate that, I started to really really enjoy reading The Beggar Maid.
Already when I reached the second story, “Privilege”, I had begun to appreciate what these stories were trying to do a little more. Or perhaps it is really that the school setting, and envy of class-mates, and overcoming said envy without it being friendly per se, was just very recognisable to me. Rereading them with B.I.P.’s post about the story in mind made me take flight and I became a lot more excited to read the rest of the collection.
In some ways, the stories about Rose’s life are difficult to read. Her home life is far from happy, her and Flo’s circumstances are socially and economically unstable, she encounters class prejudices from people she meets, and in a way she is constantly confronted with the seemingly-more-perfect lives of her classmates and friends. Watching Rose make “mistakes” in the relationships she establishes is at times painful to read about as well, signalled by that feeling I so often have of wanting to protect a literary character from their inevitable mistakes. But then again, this is the very power of Rose’s stories, for they make you care, and at the same time they portray the very messiness of life.
My three favourite stories may have been “The Beggar Maid”, “Mischief”, and “Providence”. They have all the qualities that occur throughout the collection: Rose navigating the world with its classist presumptions, with the gendered undertones of “surviving” as a woman, and of navigating relationships with either man, friends, or family. Perhaps it is not accidental that two of these stories are the longest in the collection, as these were the true “turning points” in the collection, where I went from interested observer to engaged reader.
I admit, I haven’t truly overcome my trepidations about reading Alice Munro. At the same time, revisiting this collection, remembering how much of her stories lingered despite it being months ago that I actually read them, I am looking forward to the next occasion I will find the courage to read a collection by her.