“Boys and Girls” is the ninth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (click here for links to reviews of the other stories in Dance of the Happy Shades).
I know Munro gets criticized for frequently taking us to a fox farm in Ontario in the 1930s or 1940s, but I’m always anxious to see what will happen to our young female narrator as she grows up with her father, mother, and little brother.
Here we find ourselves in the small town of Jubilee (we’ll find ourselves here again). The War is going on in Europe, and our narrator is an eleven-year-old girl who imagines herself rescuing people from a bombed out building. The oldest child, she has been helping her father with his pelting operation for some time, much to her mother’s dismay.
The little girl has no conceptions of gender roles. Just as she imagines saving people in the war, she imagines herself as a public hero in Jubilee:
I shot two rabid wolves who were menacing the schoolyard (the teachers cowered terrified behind my back). I rode a fine horse down the main street of Jubilee, acknowledging the townspeople’s gratitude for some yet-to-be-worked-out piece of heroism (nobody ever rode a horse there, accept King Billy in the Organization Day parade).
She’s happily dreaming of opportunities for “courage, boldness and self-sacrifice,” but around the corner is her disillusionment, or, it’s better to say, her illusionment.
It first comes when her father is talking to a feed salesman. Her father points to her and says, “Like you to meet my new hired man,” causing the girl to turn “red in the face with pleasure.” The salesman says, “Could of fooled me. I thought it was only a girl.” The feed salesman is not the only person to see our narrator — “it” — as only a girl. Her mother is frustrated to no end that her daughter is out in the fields helping when she should be inside helping. She proceeds to pester the father, telling him he needs to start relying more on Laird, the little brother. She also dismisses any help our narrator might provide: “Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help.” Our narrator thinks, “She loved me, and she sat up at night making a dress of the difficult style I wanted, for me to wear when school started, but she was also my enemy.”
Everything is changing around her. She used to have power over Laird, even telling him once to climb to the ridge beam in the barn. At night they’d sing songs in bed, which is also when she starts to give him back any power she had over him. One night he tells her to stop singing. She ignores him the first night, but the next night she doesn’t even begin to sing.
These forces are pushing her and changing her, and she doesn’t like where it’s taking her:
The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing.
What I love about this story, though, is that while it is clearly an examination at this kind of formation of gender roles, particularly as it proceeds to shove the narrator against her will into the female mold, it doesn’t let off easily the role pushed on the men. In other words, though our narrator idealizes her father and by the end is jealous that it is her brother who will be going out to the fields, she is also awakened to the horror as she watches Laird’s own innocence brutalized, and him not even realizing it was going on. She doesn’t really want either role that has been thrust on either child, which leads to an interesting, ambiguous, and very sad ending.
At the dinner table after a terrible day when she’s shown she cannot make it as a man but Laird comes home with blood on his clothes, she begins to cry. Her father echos the feed salesman, though at least not calling her an “it”:
“She’s only a girl,” he said.
I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.
Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” has as its heroine an eleven-year-old girl growing up on her father’s silver fox farm.
Two riffs on storytelling — one at the start of the story and one at the end — provide a frame for all the other competing storylines. Such a structure suggests that the girl’s love of telling stories to herself is essential, if she is to survive her coming of age.
The story is full of truths at odds with one another: the mother who loves her daughter feels like “an enemy”; the father she adores actually interrupts his work to listen to that very same mother; the little brother the girl both loves and manipulates might tell on her; the company she prefers is her father’s, so the work she prefers is her father’s, although no one actually thinks fox-farming is the right future for this girl, even the author. The girl dreams of learning to shoot and ride horses, but the only horses she knows are the ones her father buys to shoot for horsemeat.
This is the push-pull world the girl must negotiate if she is not to perish. She has a lot to learn. The business of this story is how she will satisfy the central push-pull she feels, not just to be loved but to also be free.
She appears to be ten years old when the story begins, and the story’s first half spans the pelting season that occurs before Christmas through to the summer. The girl is supposed to work alongside her mother in the house, but any chance she gets she runs outside to help her father. The important job her father entrusts to her is watering the foxes, not an easy one, and helping to scythe the tall grass. She works “willingly” beside her father, and is very proud when he remarks to a visiting feed salesman, “Like to have you meet my new hired man.” With a kind of foreshadowing, the salesman replies, “Could of fooled me. I thought it was only a girl.” The reader notices, uncomfortably, the salesman’s wording: his easy dismissal, his easy denomination of her as “it.”
The winter she is eleven, her mother’s campaign to keep her in the house gathers steam. The girl “no longer felt safe.” The necessity of her to be in the house has a wider import:
A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment.
The mother and daughter endure the girl’s return volleys of many small rebellions, the girl “thinking that by such measures I kept myself free.”
The twist in the story is that when she acts upon her longing for freedom, the person from whom she achieves an irrevocable distance is her father. The horses must be culled before they run out of hay. Mack is shot and butchered, but the girl disobeys her father and watches from a knothole in the barn. It’s as if she has eaten the apple. In the next few weeks, she has what seem like flashbacks: her father’s shot, Mack’s death, her father and the hired men checking, “in a businesslike way,” to see that Mack is dead. As she considers these details, she feels “a little ashamed, and there was a new wariness, a sense of holding off, in my attitude to my father and his work.”
Flora will be next. Flora is the horse they have been using all winter to take them to town in the cutter. She was full of “speed and high stepping, her general air [one of] of gallantry and abandon.” On the morning she is to be shot, she unexpectedly bolts. The girl’s father calls for her to shut the gate, and without thinking, at the last minute, the girl opens the gate instead.
When Flora is finally run down, shot and butchered, and when what the girl has done comes to light, the denouement occurs. She doesn’t argue, she just cries. Her brother points it out.
“Never mind,” [her] father said. He spoke with resignation, even good humor, the words which absolved and dismissed [her] for good. “She’s only a girl.”
Notice, though, that unlike the feed salesman, her father says “she,” not “it,” and she feels his kindness. Notice, too, however, the push-pull: being absolved is intertwined with being dismissed. Freedom appears to come at quite a price.
The storytelling plays into this push-pull reality. While these riffs frame the story, Munro does not give us easy satisfaction; story telling is not in any obvious way going to save her, at least not very soon.
A developmental change does occur from in the girl’s story telling. The first riff has the girl telling tales to herself of being a hero, of rescuing people from bombed buildings, of riding horses, and shooting wolves. The second riff, perhaps a year later, has other people being the hero. She is not the rescuer, but the rescued, demonstrating, perhaps, how she feels after being relegated to the house, and the difficult, or even impossible, female role she is expected to master. This mirrors, of course, the whole gist of the story: that it is difficult to assume the role of girl, when what it is you want to be is a person.
When her father says, “She’s only a girl,” the girl thinks, “I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.” The story, therefore, hinges on the push-pull of all the competing possibilities in that word: “maybe.”
A last thought on the politics of “Boys and Girls”: Laird. It is not only the girl-heroine who is driven down the cattle chute of role assignation; the boy is also bound for the chute. Perhaps Munro sees us all as driven by a thirst for freedom, but being a woman, she takes a special interest in girls and women. Being Munro, she writes about that drive for autonomy as being naturally and inevitably complicated by all the push-pull, all the competing circumstances, accidents, mysteries, and compromises. In the end, maybe it’s awareness that constitutes the greatest freedom, as in the young girl knowing, in her heart, that “maybe” it was true she was only a girl. “Maybe” being the operative word.