In my last post I wrote a review of My Best Stories by Margaret Atwood. I described some of the stories. To better try to portray the nature of her stories I want to set out in detail one of the stories in the book.
In Carried Away a letter, dated January 6, 1917, arrives addressed to “The Librarian, Carstairs Public Library, Carstairs, Ontario”. A soldier, Jack Agnew, wounded and in hospital, is writing to “The Librarian”, a woman he admired but whose name he did not know. He speaks of life, as it was in Carstairs, and books. Louisa, The Librarian, responds with her own letter. More letters follow.
Jack likes non-fiction such as H.G. Wells and Robert Ingersoll. Louisa enjoys the fiction of Thomas Hardy and Willa Cather.
In a world of instant communication the expecation and joy of letters is uncommon. I have been writing letters to my granddaughters after visits since they were babies. It is my hope they will appreciate our relationship in a special way as they grow older.
Jack asks for a photograph. She gets one taken and sends it to him.
My heart caught when he wrote, not morbidly, but matter of factly that he did not think they would ever meet as he would not make it home from the war so:
… I can say anything I want. I guess it’s like being sick with a fever. So I will say I love you. I think of you up on a stool at the Library reaching to put a book away and I come up and put my hands on your waist and lift you down, and you turning around inside my arms as if we agreed about everything.
I wanted so desperately for the relationship Jack and Louisa, two reserved young people, to blossom into a lifetime together.
And then Munro revealed Jack had made a secret engagement with Grace Horne before leaving for war.
The letters cease and the war ends. Louisa learns Jack has survived. She keeps the library open despite the Spanish Flu as she is sure he will come to the library on his return.
Instead, Jack marries Grace, A lonely Louisa goes to bed with a commercial traveler. Jack is decapitated in a work accident.
There was another poignant moment.
Jack’s employer, Arthur Doud, returns books to the library Jack has never checked out. Grace said Jack went to the library every Saturday night. Louisa says to Arthur she never met Jack and asked Arthur of Jack’s appearance. Munro leaves it to the reader to grasp that Jack was seeing Louisa but she was not seeing him
Arthur starts spending time at the library. He is a good man. Louisa marries him. She wanted to “get into a normal life”.
There is a final twist 30 years later with Arhtur gone when Louisa learns Jack was not the actual victim in the decapitation and meets him.
You will have to read the story to find out what happens to Louisa and Jack at their meeting.
In my next post I will discuss some reflections of the famed Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, who wrote an introduction to My Best Stories.
My Best Stories by Alice Munro