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Essay by Reid Mitchell
Imaginary Evidence: The Historical Fiction of Alice Munro
Despite history's origins in storytelling, narrative has not been the dominant mode in the history profession for quite some time. Academic historians, myself included, usually choose the article or the monograph to present their research, make their arguments, and persuade their readers. When historians do write narrative, they tend to write narrative in the manner of the 19th century. Literary modernism did not become part of the historian's baggage, and the only postmodernism to make its appearance has been not literary but theoretical and heavy-handed-an enemy, one might say, to history and literature alike. Furthermore, when some historians attempt to make their narrative lively, they depart from historical method to badly cliché'd fictional conventions, telling was what their subjects thought or what expressions flashed across their faces, or some other speculation that cannot be buttressed by evidence. Too much historical narrative reads like genre fiction.
Yet the historical method, which begins with collecting fragmentary evidence, like an archaeologist his potsherds or the paleontologist his few bones of some great beast, does not have to smooth contradictions and ambiguity into conventional narrative. Like much 20th century fiction, it can instead leave much of the work to the readers, deny them the authorial voice, and ultimately leave the complete story unknown. Most historians prefer to leave the reconstructions and ambiguities to the footnotes and cloak their interpretations in authority. But the writer of historical fiction should see opportunity where the professors fear to tread. Writers such as Alice Munro have used the imprecision of history to create a literature of uncertainty, fiction in which the author refuses to reassure us that we know for sure what really happens. Of course, one can argue that that includes all fiction--even all "texts"--but surely some authors raise the question more purposefully than others.
Alice Munro's "A Wilderness Station" is a particularly fine example of how imaginary evidence may be used. It is told entirely by "documents:" letters written in the 1850s, recollections in a 1907 newspaper, and a reminiscence written in 1959 by Christena Mullen in the form of a letter to "Mr. Leopold Henry, Department of History, Queen's University. The first letter is from the matron of an orphanage agreeing to ship Miss McKillop, one of their wards, out to the Canadian wilderness to be a bride for Simon Herron. The newspaper,article, written over fifty years later, is by Simon's younger brother George; among other things, it describes Simon's death in an accident. The next series of letters discuss Anne Herron, who's fled the wilderness station and gone to a nearby jail. She claims she murdered Simon Herron, but the conclusion is that grief has driven her insane. In a letter written to a friend, however, Anne explains that George murdered his older brother and the two of them conspired to cover it up. In the final letter, Christena Mullen describes a trip in her new Stanley Steamer when she took "Old Annie"--a "character" who worked as a seamstress for the family of the letter-writer-to visit George in 1907. Apparently having suffered a stroke. George "could not talk, except now and then a few words."
"Too bad old Mr. Herron wasn't
able to talk to you," I said to Old Annie.
The story that emerges from these contradictory sources is almost biblical in intensity. The murder, the cover-up, the guilt that Anne suffers, the long years in which George perhaps remembers, perhaps forgets the murder, and the final confrontation between Anne and George when he could no longer defend himself, and when she knows her mere presence is enough to remind him of his guilt. This, the reader feels, is what "A Wilderness Station" is all about.
The story we are tempted to piece together from the sources--George murdered his harsh brother, Anne encouraged him to cover up his crime, but could not live with the guilt and accept it as hers, only to years later come and confront George--makes sense of the fragments, and, more importantly, is satisfying as a narrative. But there is no guarantee it is what happened. Perhaps Anne really did go insane. It's unlikely but barely possible that Anne really did kill her husband and George covered up for her. The reader feels impatient with Christena Mullen for not understanding the nature of Old Annie's visit to George, but perhaps it is the reader who is seeing more than is really there.
This is not to say that as a reader I am not pretty much convinced of the "truth" of the "true" story. It is to say that Munro denies us conclusive evidence. Munro's "A Wilderness Station" is an example of how the historical method can be used to write literary fiction, modern fiction--what I am calling the literature of uncertainty. It is also to suggest that this method of assembling "historical" fragments can seem less arbitrary on the part of the author who wants to deny us certainty than some other modernistic techniques, because readers will not only think "this evidence is all we have"--even though the "evidence" is invented by the author--but will think of themselves as joining with the author in deciphering the evidence rather than as being tricked by the author.
Nothing I say above is meant to suggest that historical fiction written conventionally cannot be more than genre fiction. Nor am I advocating that historians generally give up the monograph or the narrative. But historical fiction has a broader range than may customarily be granted it.