Alice Munro (b. 1931) is a Canadian writer who focuses almost exclusively on short stories. She has received numerous literary awards, including the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
Munro's stories, nearly all of which are set in small-town Canada, feature everyday people navigating ordinary life. But the stories themselves are anything but ordinary. Munro's precise, unflinching observations unmask her characters in a way that is simultaneously uncomfortable and reassuring -- uncomfortable because Munro's x-ray vision feels as if it could easily unmask the reader as well as the characters, but reassuring because Munro’s writing passes so little judgment. It is hard to come away from these stories of "ordinary" lives without feeling as if you've learned something about your own.
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" was originally published in the December 27, 1999, edition of The New Yorker. The magazine has made the complete story available for free online. In 2006, the story was adapted into a film titled, Away from Her, directed by Sarah Polley.
Grant and Fiona have been married for forty-five years. When Fiona shows signs of deteriorating memory, they realize she needs to live in a nursing home. During her first 30 days there -- during which Grant is not permitted to visit -- Fiona seems to forget her marriage to Grant and develops a strong attachment to a resident named Aubrey.
Aubrey is only in residence temporarily, while his wife takes a much-needed holiday. When the wife returns and Aubrey leaves the nursing home, Fiona is devastated. The nurses tell Grant that she will probably forget Aubrey soon, but she continues to grieve and waste away.
Grant tracks down Aubrey's wife, Marian, and tries to convince her to move Aubrey permanently to the facility. She cannot afford to do so without selling her house, which she initially refuses to do. By the end of the story, presumably through a romantic connection he makes with Marian, Grant is able to bring Aubrey back to Fiona. But by this point, Fiona seems not to remember Aubrey but rather to have renewed affection for Grant.
What Bear? What Mountain?
You are probably familiar with some version of the folk/children's song "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." There are variations of the specific lyrics, but the gist of the song is always the same: the bear goes over the mountain, and what he sees when he gets there is the other side of the mountain.
So what does this have to do with Munro's story?
One thing to consider is the irony created by using a light-hearted children's song as the title for a story about aging. It's a nonsense song, innocent and amusing. It's funny because of course the bear saw the other side of the mountain. What else would he see? The joke's on the bear, not on the singer of the song. The bear's the one who did all that work, perhaps hoping for a more exciting and less predictable reward than the one he inevitably got.
But when you juxtapose this childhood song with a story about aging, the inevitability seems less humorous and more oppressive. There is nothing to be seen except the other side of the mountain. It's all downhill from here, not so much in the sense of being easy as in the sense of deterioration, and there's nothing innocent or amusing about it.
In this reading, it doesn't really matter who the bear is. Sooner or later, the bear is all of us.
But perhaps you're the kind of reader who needs the bear to represent a specific character in the story. If so, I think the best case can be made for Grant.
It is clear that Grant has been repeatedly unfaithful to Fiona throughout their marriage, though he has never considered leaving her. Ironically, his effort to save her by bringing Aubrey back and putting an end to her grieving is accomplished through yet another infidelity, this time with Marian. In this sense, the other side of the mountain looks a lot like the first side.
'Came' or 'Went' Over the Mountain?
When the story opens, Fiona and Grant are young university students who have agreed to get married, but the decision almost seems to be on a whim.
"He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him," Munro writes. And indeed, Fiona's proposal does sound only half-serious. Shouting over the waves at the beach, she asks Grant, "Do you think it would be fun if we got married?"
A new section begins with the fourth paragraph, and the wind-blown, wave-crashing, youthful exuberance of the opening section has been replaced by a calmer sense of ordinary concerns (Fiona is trying to wipe away a smudge on the kitchen floor).
It's clear that some time has passed between the first and second sections, but the first time I read this story and learned that Fiona was already seventy years old, I still felt a jolt of surprise. It seemed that her youth -- and their entire marriage -- had been dispensed with too unceremoniously.
Then I assumed that the sections would alternate. We'd read about the carefree younger lives, then the older lives, then back again, and it would all be sweet and balanced and wonderful.
Except that isn't what happens. What happens is that the rest of the story focuses on the nursing home, with occasional flashbacks to Grant's infidelities or to Fiona's earliest signs of memory loss. The bulk of the story, then, takes place on the figurative "other side of the mountain."
And this is the critical difference between "came" and "went" in the title of the song. Though I believe "went" is a more common version of the song, Munro chose "came." "Went" implies that the bear is going away from us, which leaves us, as readers, safe on the side of youth. But "came" is the opposite. "Came" suggests that we're already on the other side; in fact, Munro has made sure of it. "All that we can see" -- all that Munro will allow us to see -- is the other side of the mountain.