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Everyone Has Clutter–Alice Munro’s “Family Furnishings”

Alice Munro (1931- )Yesterday we learned that the dean of Canadian short story writers, Alice Munro, had been selected to that rarefied list of Nobel Prize winners. Sometimes the choices in the literature category are puzzling, but for once I feel that the Swedes have made a reasonable selection. Not only does Alice Munro not feel the need to write without the punctuation necessary to allow smooth reading, she actually pens stories about realistic people in realistic settings. Rather than detach Iberia from Europe and allow it to bob around the Atlantic as Saramago did, she explores genuine and surprising–but surprisingly genuine–aspects of human psychology.

One of her widely anthologized stories, “Family Furnishings,” will illustrate this truth. Throughout the first ninety percent of this story, we believe we are going one direction. This will be a variation on the coming-of-age story with a young niece, the narrator, learning something important about her Aunt Alfrida or “Freddie” as the narrator’s father called her.

Early in the story, we learn that Alfrida is not exactly what she appears on the surface. She writes under an assumed identity for two different newspaper columns. Beyond that, we begin to discover that she is slightly disreputable, apparently having become persona non grata within her family. And that’s the vector we believe, along with the narrator, that we’ll be traveling as this narrative works its way toward a conclusion, but then Munro tosses in a completely believable little bombshell that rattles not only the reader but the storyteller.

At her father’s funeral, the narrator meets a woman whom she takes as one of Alfrida’s half sisters. Instead, she learns that this is Alfrida’s daughter. And then we learn, not in so many words, that this woman’s father is apparently the narrator’s father.

Also, that the feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before, was not there now. I said, “Things get changed around.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now. I knew it was coming now.
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.
I made myself keep looking into the dark face against the light.
Smart, too smart, not smart enough. 

The clues had been there in plain sight for all to see: Alfrida’s reputation, her affinity for the father, her removal to another city, and an implausible story of Armistice Day with which Munro opens her tale. Yet our clever narrator, an author, we have learned, could not connect the dots while Munro has, with true cleverness, kept the reader from doing so for some twenty pages.

Families have furnishings–or, as Dr. Phil would probably say, baggage. As I read Munro’s stories about ordinary people in unremarkable lives, I’m reminded of the furnishings that we find in the ordinary people of the Biblical narratives. How will Munro’s narrator integrate the knowledge of her half-sister and her father’s secrets into her life of “smartness”? How did Adam and Eve manage to integrate the history of Cain and Abel into their raising of Seth? What sorts of secrets and concealing went on in the household of Jacob over the years?

Families have baggage, yet sometimes that baggage furnishes the raw materials for development of the family members as time passes. Munro reminds us that human life is sufficiently intriguing not to require an inexplicably detached chunk of Europe to fuel a rich story. For that alone, I would argue, she is worthy of this recent honor.

Posted in Canadian Literature, Contemporary.

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