Returning to a Master: Dance of the Happy Shades

dance-of-the-happy-shadesIt has been too long since I’ve read Alice Munro’s work. I corrected that with her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. It shows all the hallmarks of her long, illustrious, and now Nobel prize winning career: southern Ontario, rural life, women’s concerns, stories of children, and, of course, a fox farmer. Okay, the last one might not actually be a hallmark of her career, but I feel like she might be the only writer to ever write about fox farming (and she does a really good job of it in “Boys and Girls”). I was a little hesitant given that some writers’ first books are less than stellar, but Munro’s hardly skips a beat. I think there are a few less-accomplished stories here, but “Boys and Girls,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “The Peace of Utrecht,” and “Dance of the Happy Shades” are well worth the cost of admission.

I first read “Boys and Girls” while working as a teaching assistant four years ago. I guess at the time I did not think too much of it (it could also be I read too many poor essays on it), but coming back to it now, I kept wondering whether I was blind. Munro is such a careful writer, and her sentences are so finely tuned that they resonate like a finely plucked harp string. I feel like in this collection, Munro as a young writer, was obsessed with a carefully positioned moment, almost always at the end of the story, where she pulls the whole narrative together and ties it off with a poetic bow. I loved these moments and I’ll quote one below. I worry that this won’t make sense without everything that comes before it:

“So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, 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” (18).

That is one sentence folks, the second last paragraph of “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Even typing it, I cannot quite wrap my head around how well Munro paints the paradox of a parent to a child: you know them intimately and yet you also don’t know them at all because of the years they lived before and away from you. I am willing to bet that each story has a moment like this. As a young writer, this might be the one place where you could catch Munro following a script in her stories. And yet they work so well! This is a great collection and well worth digging up from your local book store.

I would highly recommend this book to all fans of short fiction.

Munro, Alice. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.

*Again, the cover image is not the one from the edition I used, but it was so good I couldn’t not use it.