The Turkey Season by Alice Munro, 1980
The magic trick:
Making the young narrator an expert in observation and emotional intelligence
This could so easily just be a fairly dull high school “How I Spent My Holiday Break” essay. A teenage girl gets a seasonal job at a turkey farm. She tells us about the kooky but not crazy array of co-workers she meets. Yep. That’s about it.
So why is it one of the best 50 stories I’ve ever read? Well, Munro is a genius. Of course. But specifically?
It’s the narrator’s great gift for observation and emotional intelligence that makes the story so special. As such, of course, she is a stand-in for Munro. But that’s a brilliant thing. I always thought it was silly the way that Oscar Wilde’s gift for wit meant that all of his characters were miraculously witty. Still enjoyable, yes. But I like this method of employing the writer’s strengths far better. We have a preternaturally gifted narrator. Everyone else is normal. And she’s normal too. She’s just quietly gifted with a writer’s curiosity.
So what does that mean for us, the reader? It means we get brilliantly focused assessments of the various workers at the farm, descriptions honed right to the core of their being. Even more crucially, it means we get a complete understanding of the mystery surrounding the foreman. She explains to us why the town is attracted to the man; then explains how they’ve misread the situation and fail to understand the nature of their own interest. That’s high-level analysis!
It goes on, too. Having dispensed with the locals’ view of the situation, the narrator gets to the essence of the mystery. She doesn’t have it figured out yet – that unknown remains to drive the narrative. But damn if she doesn’t fully understand the riddle.
And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
I think the idea that Lily and Marjorie promoted – that Gladys was after Herb Abbott – sprang from their belief that single people ought to be teased and embarrassed whenever possible, and from their interest in Herb, which led to the feeling that somebody ought to be after him. They wondered about him. What they wondered was: How can a man want so little? No wife, no family, no house. The details of his daily life, the small preferences, were of interest. Where had he been brought up? (Here and there and all over.) How far had he gone in school? (Far enough.) Where was his girlfriend? (Never tell.) Did he drink coffee or tea if he had the choice? (Coffee.)
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