24 pages 48 minutes read

Alice Munro

Friend of My Youth

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1990

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Summary: “Friend of My Youth”

“Friend of My Youth” is the title short story from the collection of the same name by Alice Munro, published in 1990. The collection won the 1990 Trillium Book Award, which recognizes writers from Ontario, Canada.

Narrated in the first person, the story is told from the perspective of an unnamed female writer in mourning for her mother, who died some years earlier of Parkinson’s disease. The narrator describes a recurrent dream that she used to have about her mother, in which her mother is suddenly alive again. In the dream, the mother appears healthy, and her manner is offhand and cheerful.

The narrator recalls a story that her mother once told her. The story concerns two sisters, Flora and Ellie Grieves, with whom her mother lived while she was a schoolteacher and engaged to be married. The Grieves sisters and Ellie’s husband. Robert Deal, belong to the Cameronian religion, a strict Scottish religion that forbids modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing and prescribes distance from the modern world. The Grieves’ farmhouse is divided in half, with Flora and the narrator’s mother living in one half, and Ellie and Robert living in the other. Flora is high-spirited, cheerful, and hardworking, while Ellie is bed-ridden. Ellie’s illness is mysterious, but it seems to have originated with her repeated pregnancies and miscarriages.

Through the townspeople, the narrator’s mother discovers a scandal concerning the two sisters and Robert Deal. She learns that Robert was originally engaged to be married to Flora, the older sister, but that he got Ellie pregnant during their engagement. The engagement was called off and Robert and Ellie—who was a teenager at the time—had to marry instead. Flora remained in the house with them and showed no signs of bitterness or jealousy.

During the mother’s stay with the Grieves family, a nurse arrives to care for Ellie. The nurse’s name is Audrey Atkinson, and she has a brash, bossy style. She attempts to befriend the narrator’s mother, imagining that she can commiserate with her about the antiquated ways of the Grieves family. However, the narrator’s mother shuns Audrey, preferring Flora’s company. After the narrator’s mother leaves her teaching job and the Grieves household, she learns from a town acquaintance that Ellie has died and that Audrey Atkinson is Robert’s new wife. Audrey Atkinson modernized her and Robert’s half of the house and threw an engagement party that violated the tenets of his Cameronian religion.

The narrator’s mother writes a letter of commiseration to Flora but receives a proud and indignant response. They have no further communication until just before the narrator’s mother’s death; it is the narrator who discovers Flora’s letter. In the letter, Flora expresses her sorrow about the narrator’s mother’s illness, and reveals that she also left the farmhouse and is now living in town. The narrator suspects from this news—and from the absence of any mention of faith or God in the letter—that Flora has abandoned her religion as well.

The narrator imagines encountering Flora in her new, modern life. She speculates about what paths Flora might have taken, and how her appearance and manner might have changed. She imagines that if she were to run into Flora, Flora would not receive her very kindly, then realizes that Flora is probably dead. The narrator acknowledges that imagining Flora is a way of imagining her mother. She remembers that the recurrent dream about her mother made her feel swindled and dissatisfied, as well as relieved. The narrator describes how, in the dream, her mother “turns the bitter lump of love I have carried all this time into a phantom—something useless and uncalled for, like a phantom pregnancy” (26).

The story ends with an isolated paragraph, in which the narrator shares some facts that she has discovered about the early Cameronians. The Cameronians renounced “prayer books, bishops,” and “any taint of popery or interference by the King” (26). The name “Cameronian” comes from an exiled preacher named Richard Cameron, and Cameronians prefer to be called “Reformed Presbyterians.” They went into battle singing Psalms, once killed a Bishop, and “One of their ministers, in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all of the other preachers in the world” (26).