Walker Brothers Cowboy Essays and Criticism
by Alice Munro

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The Three Adult Characters in Munro's Story

(Short Stories for Students)

In the decades since her first collection of stories was published, Alice Munro has established herself as one of the preeminent contemporary writers of the short story form. Her work has been compared to that of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor— primarily for her skilled storytelling and her evocation of a specific region—and even the short fiction of the great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. When Dance of the Happy Shades was published in 1968, it immediately garnered critical praise for its author, and she won Canada’s highest literary award, the Governor General’s Award. Since this auspicious beginning, Munro has produced a solid body of work that focuses on numerous themes, but she often returns to those that she raised with her earliest stories, particularly problems of identity and isolation.

‘‘Walker Brothers Cowboy,’’ the opening story of Dance of the Happy Shades, is, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates writing for the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘a beautiful early story.’’ It features a young narrator, Del Jordan (though she remains unnamed in the story itself), who shows remarkable insight and sensitivity in viewing the world around her and the people who populate it. Del appears in a number of other stories by Munro, both in this and other collections, and these stories allow Munro to explore some of her most important concerns through the dynamics of the Jordan family.

‘‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’’ takes place shortly after the Jordan family has lost their fox farm. They have relocated to the outskirts of Tuppertown— they are not of the town itself nor of the countryside anymore—and are attempting to forge a new life. While Ben Jordan has found a job—which is diffi- cult in the depression years—selling patent mediW cines, spices, and food flavorings to the farmers who inhabit the backcountry, his wife refuses to accept their new station in life. She endures in a state of active resentment, which manifests itself quite clearly to her daughter. The story focuses primarily on one afternoon when Ben Jordan takes his daughter and son with him on his salesman’s route. They visit a former sweetheart of Ben’s, Nora Cronin, who now lives with her blind mother. The visit between Ben and Nora is tinged with feelings of pleasure, bitterness, and melancholy. By the time they begin the drive back home, the narrator has undergone a formative experience, one that will inevitably contribute to her maturation into womanhood.

The narrator demonstrates remarkable sensitivity for her age. The details she includes present a clear picture of the life she and her family share, as well as her parents’ different ways of dealing with their economic decline. From the beginning of the story, the narrator shows Mrs. Jordan’s assumed superiority over their poor neighbors. She only deigns to speak to one neighbor, another woman who has come down in the world, ‘‘being a schoolteacher who married the janitor.’’ Mrs. Jordan even makes excuses to keep her children from playing with the neighbors’ children. The only direct comment the narrator makes about how she is affected by her mother’s actions is when she admits that she is embarrassed to be seen with her mother in the town: ‘‘I loathe even my name when she says it in public, in a voice so high, proud, and ringing, deliberately different from the voice of any other mother on the street.’’

The narrator further subtly castigates her mother when she brings up Mrs. Jordan’s ‘‘health problems.’’ ‘‘My mother has headaches,’’ writes the narrator. ‘‘She often has to lie down.’’ Yet the narrator understands, and relates to the reader, that Mrs. Jordan is not actually trying to get better. Instead, Mrs. Jordan looks at the tree outside the porch so she can imagine she is ‘‘at home.’’ Her longing for the farm, however, resides solely in her desire to return to a more genteel lifestyle. She turns down her husband’s...

(The entire section is 5,908 words.)