Alice Munro’s “Walker Brother’s Cowboy,” narrated from the perspective of young girl, focuses on the narrator’s initiation into a world that leaves her bewildered, uncertain of what she knows, how she has come to know what she knows, and how stable her knowledge is of the world she moves in. This sense of bewilderment is captured in the question her father asks as the story begins: “’Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?
” With this seemingly casual question, Munro positions her narrator in a world in which her own knowledge becomes increasingly evident. Is it possible, the reader is left to ask, if there exists a world in which a lake might exist one day and not the next? For the narrator, such a world is full of both moments of understanding and bewilderment.
Seeing her travels with her father as an “adventure,” the narrator begins the story bewildered by much of what she sees and hears, most notably with her father’s ironic detachment from the pressures of time that she feels; of the financial pressures facing her family during the Depression, as her father acknowledges to a tramp; of the horizons of human cruelty, as someone dumps a chamberpot on her father’s head; and, most importantly, of the role of Nora in her father’s life.
Gradually, though, she comes to understand that her sense of reality, what she calls “[t]he tiny share” of the possibilities of life, is incomplete, and does not include “a time… when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist” or when the land was a place that dinosaurs walked on.
Having confronted this large bewilderment, she begins to sense, though not necessarily understand, the significances of smaller things she sees, like the tear on the blind woman’s face and the loneliness and disappointment that dominates Nora’s life. And in the end, she comes to understand, too, how her father’s apparent “tranquillity” is a facade, covering the disappointment of a life that has never amounted to what he hoped for.
As the narrator admits, she comes to understand that “once your back is turned” for a moment, the world changes suddenly “into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine. ” Using a first-person narrator, rather than the all-knowing and therefore already mature eye of the omiscient speaker, Munro allows readers to see the process of maturation, the emergence from the enchantments of youth into the the never-understandable realities of a world of adulthood and change.