I believe that all writers have a few short stories that they’re forever trying to emulate or write their own version of. Mavis Gallant’s ‘Voices Lost in the Snow’ is one of mine. The narrator, Linnet, recalls her childhood in 1930s country Montreal from the perspective of many years later, grown and living in North America. The Saturdays spent calling on friends with her father, now long dead, have become one long “whitish afternoon” in memory. “Two persons descend the street, stepping carefully,” Gallant writes. “The child, reminded every day to keep her hands still, gesticulates wildly—there is the flash of a red mitten. I will never overtake this pair. Their voices are lost in the snow.”
So many specific details from this story remain with me. That flash of a red mitten against the snow, the mother with her Russian novels, the dish of pink, green and white mint wafers offered by Georgie, Linett’s godmother, when Linnet and her father visit on one of those Saturdays. I also admire the characterization of the narrator’s younger self—an example that children in a story can still have agency and play an active role in determining the outcome of events (whether they’re aware of it or not.) “Being young, I was the last one to whom anyone owed an explanation”, she reflects, and Gallant puts the reader in the child’s position in this story by never explicitly stating that the visit to Georgie’s house is a proposition of sorts: when read closely, the subtext reveals that the father is prepared to leave his wife for the other woman, but only if the child is part of the deal. To me, this story captures the way a moment or encounter from childhood can gain significance years later with the new perspective that growing older gives us on the things we couldn’t understand when we were young. Part of that involves recognizing that are our parents not indestructible figures, but flawed, vulnerable and human.
First published in The New Yorker, April 5, 1976, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Varieties of Exile, The New York Review of Books, 2003, and The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury, 2004