31 pages • 1 hour read
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“Walker Brothers Cowboy” by Alice Munro is a short story set during the Great Depression. The story uses the themes of The Disillusionment of Fading Childhood, The Bittersweet Effects of Nostalgia, and Finding Solace in Companionship to implicitly explore larger issues of poverty and social class. The story was published in Munro’s debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968. The stories in this collection are set in and around a variety of fictional rural towns on Lake Huron. “Walker Brothers Cowboy” is set primarily in the countryside of the economically struggling community of Tuppertown, and although the town itself is fictional, the setting is based on Munro’s own hometown of Wingham in Ontario, Canada.
Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, and she is known for imbuing the short story form with the poignantly nonlinear essence of a memoir. By capturing the unspoken nuances of momentary encounters, she manages to imply the myriad ambiguities that constitute a life fully lived, and the result of such craftsmanship is a richly imagined emotional landscape that is peopled by authentic characters whose experiences and lessons linger on in the mind long after the story is read. Dance of the Happy Shades was Munro’s first story collection, and her signature style is apparent throughout the pieces that make up the collection, including “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Although the story is written entirely in the present tense, the story includes several different settings and activities, shifting from the narrator’s evening walk with her father to a memory of a drive she and her brother took with him.
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This guide refers to the version of the story published in Dance of the Happy Shades by Vintage (Knopf Doubleday Publishing) in 2011.
“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is written from the first-person perspective of an unnamed girl who is also the protagonist. Although her exact age is never explicitly mentioned, the narrative implies that she is approximately of middle-school age. In the opening scene, the girl’s father, Ben Jordan, invites her to walk with him to the shores of Lake Huron after supper. As they pass through the neighborhood, the girl notices that the street looks “shabby” and the neighborhood children are “ragged” (Paragraph 2). The narrator doesn’t know the neighbors because her mother keeps both her and her brother at home.
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The girl and her father walk past a boarded-up factory and a lumberyard before reaching the beach at the edge of Lake Huron. The narrator is reminded of when her family used to live in the more affluent town of Dungannon, when they used to visit the beach more often. Around the docks, the girl and her father meet an unhoused person, who speaks to her father, but “[she] is too alarmed to catch” what he says (Paragraph 4). While her father has no money to offer, he speaks kindly to the man and gives him a cigarette.
As father and daughter move on, Ben describes how the Great Lakes were formed by glaciers, and the girl struggles to imagine a time so different from her own. Thinking of the immensity of geological time overwhelms her, and her narrative asserts, “I wish the Lake to always be just a lake” (Paragraph 5). At this point, the story shifts, moving away from the present moment to reveal that Ben has recently taken a job as a door-to-door salesman for a company called Walker Brothers. He sells medications, home remedies, teas, and spices, all of which he carries in a suitcase. The girl’s mother calls him “a peddler knocking at backwoods kitchens” (Paragraph 7).
The narrative relates that before Ben became a salesman, the girl’s family owned a fox farm that went out of business when the Great Depression hit and people had less money to spend on luxury items. The family therefore had to move into a simpler house farther from town. This economical shift has embittered the narrator’s proud mother. Families all around them are going through similar troubles, but as the narrator states, “[M]y mother has no time for the national calamity, only ours” (Paragraph 7).
Whenever the mother goes out in public, she dresses in her nicest clothes and makes the girl do the same. The girl is embarrassed by her mother’s attempts to set herself apart from the neighbors. The mother’s unhappiness causes her to withdraw from the family as well. Prone to nostalgia, the girl’s mother often wants to reminisce about the family’s “most leisurely days” (Paragraph 8), remembering a time when she was happier. The girl doesn’t feel comfortable with these conversations, which she fears might trap her into “unwanted emotion” (Paragraph 8).
Here, the story shifts into a description of a memory. One afternoon, the girl and her brother accompany their father as he drives through the countryside, making his sales rounds. The children go out with their father without dressing in fancy clothes, as they would have to do with their mother. The children are excited as they head out on the drive, and their father sings a goofy song that he made up about himself and his sales route. The song is titled “Walker Brothers Cowboy.”
The farmhouses that they visit are “unwelcoming” and “unkempt,” and as they visit one house after another, the children wait in the car while their father goes inside to try to make a sale. The narrator recalls how her father likes to joke about this process with their mother, gently making fun of himself and his customers to coax a laugh out of his wife.
At one house, no one answers the door. As Ben is standing near the door and calling out, someone opens an upstairs window and dumps a chamber pot full of urine. He laughs about it with the children after getting back to the car. Finally, their father drives to a house that is beyond his sales territory. The narrator is confused about why they are there, but her father doesn’t explain. There is a woman in front of the house, but the protagonist does not know who she is. The woman, Nora Cronin, recognizes their father after a moment and invites them all inside. Nora’s house is simple but clean. She lives with her blind mother, who recognizes Ben’s voice at once. Nora speaks both “cheerfully” and “aggressively” when she tells her elderly mother that Ben is now married and has children. Nora rushes upstairs to change and reemerges in a dress that is “flowered more lavishly than anything [the girl’s] mother owns” (Paragraph 50). She is also wearing high heels and perfume.
Nora and Ben talk in familiar tones about people the girl doesn’t know. They all sit in the front room of the house, which has a gramophone and a painting of the Virgin Mary. The girl deduces that Nora must be Catholic, unlike their family, and reflects that her mother would not approve of Nora’s religion. Ben and Nora drink whisky together, which surprises the girl, and he tells Nora the story of the chamber pot and sings his “Walker Brothers Cowboy” song. Nora laughs heartily, and Ben enjoys making her laugh. Nora turns on the gramophone and dances with the narrator. Nora asks Ben to dance as well, but he refuses. He also turns down her offer of supper, insisting that they should get back to his wife before she starts to worry.
When they depart, Nora invites them all to come back and visit. Ben returns the invitation and gives her their address, but she does not repeat it back to him. On the drive back home, Ben does not ask the narrator to keep this visit a secret from her mother, but when he buys her and her brother a few pieces of licorice as a treat, she understands implicitly that “there are things not to be mentioned. The whisky, maybe the dancing” (Paragraph 104). The girl now sees her father in a different light, as this afternoon has made her realize that he has a past she doesn’t know about.
By Alice Munro