The Shining Houses by Alice Munro, 1968
The magic trick:
Stripping away the plot to let the reader focus on theme
Shades of Flannery O’Connor here in the young woman trying to sort out the passing of the baton between generations happening before her very eyes. Unlike Flannery though we have no violence. In fact we have almost no plot at all. And I love it.
This is a story you can point to when you want to defend the claim that Munro is a modern Chekhov. “The Shining Houses” bears the influence of Chekhov all over it. We have no story getting in the way of the theme. Everything here is geared toward theme. The ideas are elegantly laid out in two scenes, both pitting Mary, the would-be protagonist, in a passive, listening role, caught between two generations with opposing viewpoints about how life should be lived. The lack of a story isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. It allows the reader to consider the ideas and themes with no hindrance. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
“I’m not complaining. Sometimes it seems to me about as reasonable a man should go as stay. I don’t mind changes, either, that helps out my egg business. But this baby-sitting. All the time one of the other is asking me about babysitting. I tell them I got my own house to sit in and I raised my share of children.”
Mary, remembering the birthday party, got up and called to her little boy. “I thought I might offer my black cherries for sale next summer,” Mrs. Fullerton said. “Come and pick your own and they’re fifty cents a box. I can’t risk my old bones up a ladder no more.
“That’s too much,” Mary said, smiling. “They’re cheaper than that at the supermarket.”
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