Before leaving for the first time by herself on a trip to Toronto, paid for from the prize money she won in her school essay competition, young Rose, the protagonist, is warned by Flo against various sexual dangers that could befall a young woman traveling alone. Flo, a motherly, talkative woman—Rose’s stepmother in Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), Alice Munro’s collection of linked short stories from which “Wild Swans” is taken—warns Rose particularly against white slavers who commonly disguise themselves as ministers of the Church. Rose is skeptical, refusing to believe anything the garrulous Flo says on the subject of sex. She recalls an incredible story Flo told her about a retired undertaker who traveled around the countryside seducing women with chocolates and flattery and making love to them in his hearse.
Though Rose is skeptical, Flo’s cautionary anecdotes about sexual seduction are very much on her mind. As the train leaves Hanratty, the small town where she lives, she is sitting by herself, absently staring at the passing countryside and thinking of what she will buy in Toronto. The train gradually fills up, and at one of its station stops, a man in his fifties takes the seat beside her. Chatting idly about the spring weather, he casually mentions that he is a United Church minister. He is not wearing a collar, explaining its absence by observing that he is not always in “uniform.” He tells her about seeing a magnificent flock of wild swans during a recent drive through the country.
Rose responds to him courteously but briefly, discouraging conversation. Because the morning is cold, she covers herself with her coat. The minister turns to his newspaper and soon falls asleep or appears to fall asleep. His newspaper lies on his lap, adjoining...
(The entire section is 737 words.)