According to Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, a Biography, “The Found Boat” (along with a few other stories in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You) was initially intended to be a novel; this particular story dates back to the 1950s as Munro was just getting started. Thacker even suggests some of it may have been placed in and then culled from Lives of Girls and Women, finally to be salvaged here, with Munro’s second short story collection. One wonders why, especially if, like me, one thinks this story is one of the weaker ones to date. But I wonder for only a short time: I still enjoyed it.
The last Munro story we talked about, “Tell Me Yes or No,” was about a woman looking back on an affair and sexual encounters some time after they’d already dissipated. “The Found Boat” goes back to the beginning. It tells a story of an adolescent sexual experience, replete with the initial burgeoning thrill, followed by humiliation, guilt, and self-delusion. That in and of itself is a fascinating concept, and, of course, Munro has touched on it and will continue to touch on it throughout her career . . . almost always in a more interesting manner than here. And despite that, I still come to care about Eva, the young girl who may have once been Del Jordan, who experiences all of those emotions in a matter of minutes. Eva’s is still a worthwhile story.
“The Found Boat” begins by telling us about a flood. It’s springtime, and the light is growing into the evening. Eva and her friend Carol are just beginning their adolescence. They wander to see the flood, which (and perhaps this was the real purpose of their wandering) brings them to the town’s group of young boys, who are also there, mostly just mocking the two girls. Eva and Carol both provoke and pretend to ignore the boys, and in doing so they find a boat, quite broken down, under the water. The boys immediately see promise and determine to salvage the boat. As the summer comes, the boys work on the boat while the girls mostly watch from a distance, until one day when Clayton, the boy Eva has a crush on, says she can go boil the tar.
She felt privileged. Then and later. Before she went to sleep a picture of Clayton came to her mind; she saw him sitting astride the boat, tar-painting, with such concentration, delicacy, absorption. She thought of him speaking to her, out of his isolation, in such an ordinary peaceful taking-for-granted voice.
The boat is finally finished and it takes the group to a different part of town where they find the small, decrepit train station of an abandoned branch line. Inside there is broken glass and foul language. It’s tantalizing and forbidding. Timidly, it’s suggested they play Truth or Dare, which, you may guess, ends with all of the children naked. Emboldened and overcome by this surprising development, they run through the grass to the flood water.
They felt that something was happening to them different from anything that had happened before, and it had to do with the boat, the water, the sunlight, the dark ruined station, and each other. They thought of each other now hardly as names or people, but as echoing shrieks, reflections, all bold and white and loud and scandalous, and as fast as arrows.
In the water, Eva and Clayton confront one another, neither hiding their nakedness. What does Clayton do? He fills his mouth with water and spits it in a stream over Eva’s breasts. Self-consciousness returns quickly and Eva slinks down into the water, “letting her head go right under.” When she surfaces again, the boys are running off, laughing, and Carol is asking what he did. “Nothing,” Eva says.
They crept in to shore. “Let’s stay in the bushes till they go,” said Eva. “I hate them anyway. I really do. Don’t you hate them?”
It’s a lie. And yet, this lie, and perhaps another lie — “What if they tell?” “We’ll say it’s all a lie.” — helps Eva feel “almost light-hearted again,” and the two girls begin to play and laugh again.
It’s fittingly left to the reader to interpret the feelings these young girls cannot quite comprehend, as they — in particular Eva — build up a barricade to protect them from that moment of exhilarating and ultimately humiliating vulnerability. But, and I realize I may be missing something, it seems this is still not asking the reader to do much, and, as I said above, Munro has and will explore this ground in much more interesting, nuanced, thrilling, terrible ways.
“The Found Boat” is set in the same time and place as Munro’s first two books: the town of Jubilee on the Wawanash River, and the time just before the Second World War — about 75 years ago. The two girls in the story, Eva and Carol, might as well be Naomi and Del, and the story bears comparison to “Changes and Ceremonies.” The group of two girls and three boys are about the same age as the kids putting on a show — twelve or thirteen — and the dawning sexualized interest that boys and girls take in each other at that age is a topic in both stories.
What is most different about the two stories is the tone. “Changes and Ceremonies” had as a scrim the annual musical and the role of art. “The Found Boat” concerns itself with girls watching boys make a junked boat river-worthy. The tone of the kids is the same in both stories: the boys and girls taunt each other in both stories, and in both, there is a sudden communication. Another shift between the two stories is the contact between the boys and girls; whereas in “Changes and Ceremonies” the sexual contact is imaginary, except the pregnancy that occurs at a distance, in “The Found Boat” the boys and girls unclothe themselves for each other.
And finally, the perspective is different in that in “Changes and Ceremonies” both girls and boys must participate equally for the show to work. In “The Found Boat” the girls’ role is to sit on the fence and watch the boys work, and then to disrobe for the boys. The only duty the girls are allowed in “The Found Boat” is to cook the tar.
Munro had now been writing for twenty years. There is no rosy glow in this story; social stratifications are more fixed; the setting is more alien; and the sexual experimentation is explicit. The boys and girls drift down the river together and end up in an abandoned building whose floor is covered in broken glass. This is no annunciation into artistic life; this is annunciation into life of the flesh. This is adventure and self-determination, and it’s no easy task. Not for the faint of heart. Luckily, these are two scrappy girls, Munro’s favorites, so there is energy and promise there.
But note the difference in focus and tone: life is not going to be easy.
One thing that strikes me about the way the kids play in this story is that there are no adults around, either to forbid them to be on the river, or to help them rebuild the boat, or to keep them from hi-jinking up and down the river in the high water season, or to forbid them to explore the abandoned building. Nor is there anyone to prevent them from going skinny dipping. These days it would be difficult for twelve year olds to be able to find ten minutes to themselves for any of these adventures, which might be why they get up to such nonsense on their iPhones.
In a 1990 interview with Rex Murphy (here), Munro says she tries to quash the lyric phrase, so that it will not “obstruct the story.” “Changes and Ceremonies” is an early story. It’s about singing and it is itself lyric to art, to winter, to spring, and to love. “The Found Boat,” however, is no such thing. It’s gritty. It’s all too real. Any of us who grew up in the fifties can remember escapades like this — a mix of adventure and danger and dirt. The closest Munro comes to lyric in “The Found Boat” is when Eva finds herself imagining Clayton:
Before she went to sleep a picture of Clayton came to her mind; she saw him sitting astride the boat, tar-painting, with such concentration, delicacy, absorption. She thought of him speaking to her, out of his isolation, in such an ordinary, taking-for-granted voice.
(This is a thought that will often re-appear: that men are subject to an isolated self-absorption, especially during sex, and that women notice it.)
Later, playing truth or dare, skinny-dipping, Clayton shoots water out of his mouth as a means of touching the bare breasts that Eva has revealed to him. We see how differently Eva and Clayton think and interact: Eva the observer, Clayton, direct and playful. Munro thus mirrors what the forty-year-old Eva will know.
It’s a terrific story, strange and familiar.