This is not only a book for those who travel to the Great Lakes over the summer, or for those who came of age in small lakeside communities that painfully depend upon Those From Elsewhere, but—speaking as someone who fits in both categories—it is for us that Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades is especially on point. Munro has been one of my very favorite authors since first reading her more than a decade ago, and I’ve encountered some of the stories in this 1968 collection before. But their true home is here, together, where their juxtaposition makes the sum stronger than its parts. This is a beautiful book.
When Munro writes here of “the Lake,” she means Lake Huron, the Canadian side, and in these fifteen tales, she unravels the interior lives of those who pass through and those who stay. She points to the arch intensity of vacationing—setting aside a specific time and place in which to seek pleasure; the calculated tactics of Fun, and of time-limited Romance—and also of the shabbiness and darkness that comes with us. Memory is a propulsive fuel in these stories; with that comes the tension between sweet nostalgia and cutting secrets.
Munro is an absolute genius of description, making this region come to life in all its beauty and earthiness. There is that breathtaking skylight. The wildlife. The rich inward lives of a people who, like the water, hold within them almost unbelievable depths.
From hand-sewn dresses to traveling salesmen to the tremendous isolation of family farmhouses and highway stores, these stories hold are fascinating markers of the book’s publication fifty years ago. Some tales look back a generation further still, set in the Great Depression. In other ways, the book is almost unsettlingly familiar in how it renders these towns, not least in the stifling gender expectations for both women and men, enforced in ways that are often too slippery to challenge or even quite see. The power dynamics between the leisure class, those who come and go as they please, and the people who are obliged to serve them in ways official and unofficial, is also familiar. Munro knows, as Dorothy Day once put it, that the most significant characteristic of poverty is not so much lack of money as precariousness.
One more thing: There are few writers who are as good as Munro at writing characters who are children. She sees them as distinctive and complete, full of contradictions and nuance. Her talent for this reminds me of Harriette Simpson Arnow, also gifted with empathy and insight that had room for people of all ages. (See Arnow’s The Dollmaker.) Poorer writers use children as symbols of innocence or morality. They turn them into idiosyncratic toys, or props for the “real” (read: adult) characters. Not Munro. Children—and teenagers, too—are worth not only our care, but our unfiltered attention.
Dance of the Happy Shades is a book best read slow, one story at a time, with sounds of the freshwater waves nearby.