Walker Brothers Cowboy by Alice Munro

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is told in the first person from the point of view of an adult woman recounting a significant formative experience from her preadolescent girlhood in which she meets a woman her father dated before marrying her mother. Through the encounter, she comes to view her father in a new light by realizing that he is not only a family provider but also a man with a colorful emotional history all his own.

The opening scene of “Walker Brothers Cowboy” establishes the geographic and psychological landscape of the story—rural Canada in the decade following World War II, where the narrator’s family and most of their neighbors have fallen on hard times and struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of declining fortunes. As the story begins, the narrator describes her mother making homemade school clothes for her because her family can no longer afford store-bought ones. Her father, Ben Jordan, was earning a respectable living raising foxes for their fur but the fur market bottomed out, and he has had to take a job as a door-to-door salesperson. The narrator’s father invites his daughter to join him for a walk along the shores of Lake Huron. This rare bonding experience unites the pair, who seldom share any time together because of the demands of Ben’s work.

The narrator’s mother—a disillusioned and emotionally reserved woman—minds to the everyday needs of her daughter and son while Ben spends long days on the road. Ben views his time with his children as precious and seizes the chance to spend an evening alone with his daughter. Although the narrator describes her relationship with her father in the ambivalent terms of a girl poised at the edge of adolescence, viewing their relationship as both nurturing and tedious, it is clear that the narrator appreciates her father’s attempts to spend meaningful time with her. On the shore of the lake, he describes to her how it was formed thousands of years ago by a receding glacier—a shallow but memorable pretext for a chance to share a moment with a daughter with whom he fears losing important connections.

In a further effort to remain an active force in the lives of his children, the next day, Ben invites them to accompany him on the road for a day’s selling. Disillusioned by the abject poverty of the farm households to which he peddles everything from laxatives to soft drink syrups, the narrator likens her father’s sales territory to the Depression-era country of the 1930’s. She observes that “this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon, seem to me to belong to that one decade in time.” Because of her age, the narrator’s conception of the 1930’s can only have come from history books and classroom anecdotes. Nonetheless, she views the daylong trip with foreboding and disdain, at least until the threesome embarks on an unexpected diversion.

Near the end of his run, her father takes the children to visit the home of Nora Cronin, an unmarried woman who single-handedly runs her family farm and cares for her blind, elderly mother. Their familiarity with each other clearly implies that at some point in the distant past Ben and Nora were good friends, possibly even lovers. Nora welcomes his company eagerly, implying that this is more than a sales visit. Once Nora has invited the Jordans into her home, she excuses herself briefly to her bedroom, where she dons a conspicuously attractive dress and generously applies perfume.

As her father shares a round of drinks and comfortable banter with Nora, the narrator begins to realize that Ben also possesses a distinct identity separate from that of the father and provider she knows. He is a man with a past—one that he feels compelled, particularly now, to revisit. The narrator discovers something she had never even considered before—that her father has a life separate from her mother, her brother, and herself. He drinks whiskey with Nora despite the fact that her mother has told the narrator...

(The entire section is 1,583 words.)