Walker Brothers Cowboy by Alice Munro

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” primarily concerns three major themes: the consequences of economic decline on middle-class families in rural postwar Canada, the dilemmas and epiphanies of a young girl on the brink of adolescence, and the multiplicity of identities even the most commonplace of individuals may possess and even cultivate as a way to deal with material hardship and accompanying feelings of relative powerlessness. Alice Munro interweaves these themes into a tale that extends beyond the bounds of a mere coming-of-age story and explores how all people—regardless of age—deal with the struggle to assert and confront their ever-evolving notions of self.

The story paints a picture of life in rural Ontario in the 1940’s and 1950’s that is far from nostalgic. The narrator unflatteringly describes it as reminiscent of the Great Depression. Every locale in “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” from the Jordans’ home to the countless doorsteps on which Ben peddles his wares are described in terms of regretful decline. Ben has had to give up the family business as a fur trader and is forced to make ends meet through commission sales. Prospects are similarly bleak for his peers; Nora mentions that her brother-in-law also struggles to stay steadily employed and that she herself is struggling to support herself and her disabled mother. Her home is filled with furnishings that are well past their prime, and her front door threatens to fall from its hinges for want of repairs she cannot afford to make. Such revealing details say much about the economic landscape of this story; “Walker Brothers Cowboy” is set in a place where the residents struggle to hold onto what they have rather than hope for the promise of prosperity.

The narrator looks on the declining fortunes of her family and neighbors with regret and disillusionment. Although one might expect a story told from the point of view of a preadolescent girl to be naïvely hopeful, the tone of “Walker Brothers Cowboy” is far from being playful or capricious. This suggests that life on the brink of poverty, especially when it comes after having tasted the fruits of even meager prosperity, forces people to seek gratification and fulfillment in the most desperate of places. The narrator seeks it in a sales run with her father, while Ben seeks pleasure in an unannounced visit to an old friend—even at the risk of such a visit looking suspicious to his wife. Although the narrator seems to apprehend little else about her father’s motives for taking his children to see Nora, near the end of the story she remarks—after exchanging a knowing glance with Ben—“that there are things not to be mentioned” about their afternoon digression. These are things the narrator will come to understand in time, perhaps as the result of composing this narrative as an adult.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

Poverty
‘‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’’ takes place in Canada in the 1930s, a decade when that country— like so many others around the world—was feeling the drastic effects of the Great Depression. It is clear that the narrator’s family’s monetary circumstances have been adversely affected by the world events. The narrator makes reference to a time when her father owned his own business, a silver fox farm. Though they were poor then, ‘‘that was a different sort of poverty.’’ Now the girl’s father is a ‘‘pedlar,’’ indicating that the family has come down in the world.

The mother’s actions in the story most clearly show the poverty of the family, but details do as well: the mother has to alter her old clothes to fit her daughter; the family now lives in a poor neighborhood; and, when visiting Lake Huron, they are now on the side where the tramps can be found, instead of at the Pavillion, where the farmers can be found dressed in their Sunday best. Though the narrator makes it clear that living in the town has certain comforts that they did not have on the farm— indoor plumbing, sidewalks, milk...

(The entire section is 1,404 words.)