Friday, February 25, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Dance of the Happy Shades (Alice Munro)

Title: Dance of the Happy Shades
Author: Alice Munro
Where I read it: Selected Stories (by Alice Munro)

It's that time of year again - Miss Marsalles, the piano teacher, is throwing her annual party for her students.

No one really wants to go. The students are expected to give a recital, which is bound to be disappointing. Miss Marsalles has faith and optimism in all her students, but because she hesitates to criticize their playing and finds pleasure even in their most mediocre offerings, she's not a particularly good music teacher.

And there are a number of other reasons not to go. Miss Marsalles is homely, old-fashioned, and unmarried. With the passing years she's lost more and more students, and the ones left are mostly just the children of former students.

She lives with her sister, and they make a strange-looking pair:
... it was surely an arresting fact that there should be not one but two faces like that in the world, both long, gravel-colored, kindly, and grotesque, with enormous noses and tiny, red, sweet-tempered and short-sighted eyes. It must finally have come to seem like a piece of luck to them to be so ugly, a protection against life to be marked in so many ways... for they were gay as invulnerable and childish people are; they appeared sexless, wild, and gentle creatures, bizarre yet domestic, living in their house in Rosedale outside the complications of time.

Over the years they've moved to increasingly smaller and shabbier homes; the one they live in now is in a rundown neighborhood. The sister has recently suffered a stroke. Everyone knows the recital will be in a small stuffy room, with offerings of bland food, music played poorly by indifferent children, and then Miss Marsalles' year-end gifts that she hands out to each child - books they'll never read, quaint pictures they'll never hang up, or boxed games that are "insipid and unplayable - full of complicated rules which allowed everybody to win."

Still, some people agree to come to her party. They do so with an air of martyrdom; it's a yearly tradition, just one afternoon to suffer through, and if they refuse to come it will probably hurt Miss Marsalles, who believes that "All children need music. All children love music in their hearts..."

What people don't know is that for this year's recital, Miss Marsalles has also invited her students from the Greenhill School, where she's been giving a music class. The Greenhill School is attended by children who are developmentally disabled.

Their arrival at the party is an unpleasant shock.

There is nothing to be done. These children are going to play. Their playing is no worse - not much worse - than ours, but they seem to go slowly, and then there is nowhere to look. For it is a matter of politeness surely not to look closely at such children, and yet where else can you look during a piano performance but at the performer?

And what happens when one of those children shows a natural gift for music?

There are a number of reasons why I'm recommending Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades. The quality of the writing, for one, and the thoughts the story offers about human gifts and talents, and how they are distributed among people.

It seems easiest to accept talent in people who are good-looking or socially approved. But Miss Marsalles, in her bright unselfconscious way, appears to find talent acceptable in anyone. She doesn't think that there's anything remarkable about a girl from the Greenhill School sitting "ungracefully at the piano with her head hanging down" and playing beautiful music.

What she plays is not familiar. It is something fragile, courtly, and gay, that carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.

Miss Marsalles herself is one of life's oddities - aging and out-of-touch, and so full of earnestness and innocent perceptions (but not cartoonish; Munro keeps her believable). She lives on the fringes of society, almost in another world. Most people don't know what to make of her; they would probably live in a state of despair if they had to swap lives with her.

But the piano teacher doesn't seem to see anything about herself or her life to pity or lament. She loves music, and she loves children; she expects to see miracles in the midst of people's imperfections. Why should she not have those sources of happiness and that talent for taking joy in life?


Other stories in this collection include Lichen and A Wilderness Station.