“The Found Boat”
by Alice Munro
from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Something-I've-Been-MeaningTrevor

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.


Betsy

“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.

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By |2017-08-03T22:47:02+00:00August 27th, 2014|Categories: Alice Munro|Tags: |5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Betsy Pelz August 28, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Trevor, I found the context you provided re Robert Thacker’s biography so useful – that the story had a long history of Alice Munro trying to find a place for it.

    I think it fits, though, into the the collection’s title – “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” Unlike Changes and Ceremonies”, there is nothing elevated about the sexual experience in this story. I think the story is important just because of that.

    There is something brutal and tawdry about what happens, The setting is the river at flood stage, when it is full of junk – “as if somewhere the river had got into a dump”.

    There is something hopeless about what happens. Eva has made some kind of choice that feels like a dead end. While in “Changes and Ceremonies” there is the musical and the safety of school as setting, and the counterpoint of art, here there is the counterpoint that Eva and Carol have no adult guides. They also have no skill to contribute to building the boat. So while they may have found the old boat, they themselves have no authority or power to bring the boat to life. The boys do that – the boys who have been calling them “fat-assed ducks”.

    The hopelessness I feel is in the juxtaposition of the situations in the story. First, the girls having no very instrumental role in getting the boat afloat. Then, though, the tables are turned, when they are willing to take off their clothes. In the boat-building, the girls are without authority. It is when they take off their clothes that they find their authority.

    The situation feels to me like a dead-end. It’s as if Munro insisted on publishing this story because it encompassed ‘something [she’d] been meaning to say’, and hadn’t yet – the dead-end of girls coping with lack of authority or self-hood or power by using sexuality as their practically sole realm of authority or power.

    I suggest that the weakness you feel in the story is the weakness of the girls, the hopelessness. The brutality of the situation just doesn’t allow for growth. We are not going to believe that Eva turns into an artist later, for instance.

    Forgive me a personal riff. When I was in eighth grade in 1958, one of my best friends fell in love with the tv show “Whirly-Birds”. I found that strange. It was about this time when she seemed to withdraw from all the goings-on in eighth grade. Then we graduated and went to different schools. Much later, I heard that she’d got her helicopter-pilot’s license, then her flying license and then a position as a pilot in an airline. Someone, of course, had helped her do that.

    Which one of these kids in “The Found Boat” is most likely to learn how to fly helicopters and jets?

    To me, it feels like Munro is addressing the box that a thirteen year girl of that time could find herself in – with no way to make it in a man’s world except to take her clothes off. The story is unpleasant. But I’m glad Munro published it. It captures one sense of how girls came of age at that time.

  2. Trevor Berrett August 28, 2014 at 10:45 am

    I know it’s very unfair of me to criticize this story because the supreme Alice Munro plays with the themes better later and I think before, as well, such as in “Lives of Girls and Women” (the story). Though it’s true there the sexual experience is much more sinister, we still get Del imagining something she cannot comprehend and, essentially, being assaulted (again, much more sinister). I really don’t think that I consider the story weak because the girls are weak — though I need to wrap my head around that a bit more; rather, I just think the story is a bit more simplistic, the themes suggested but not fully controlled.

    That said, I do wonder about the slightly biblical tones of the story, and I never got my head around them (help!): there’s the flood, first; but then there’s Eva’s name; and, perhaps most subtly woven in, the separation of light and dark, which is brought up often.

  3. Betsy Pelz August 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Trevor – I had written a reply yesterday, and junked it. Tried again this morning. May have sounded a little overwrought. Your calling this story weak really got my attention!

    Yes – I’ll admit, the biblical references bother me! I did not know what to do with Eva-Eve-evil, for one thing. How can you give someone the name Eva without evil coming to mind? But I couldn’t really see how that worked. And I couldn’t do anything with Eve-Eva that didn’t seem preposterous. So I don’t think the name works. The flood in this story to me is just a flood; the story doesn’t seem to me to support any more than that. I totally missed the emphasis on light and dark. So I take your point, Trevor – the story is a little like “Walking on Water” – W-on-W doesn’t entirely cohere, and Found-Boat seems slight. The ambition in “Walking on Water” was too large for the form, I think. Perhaps the ambition here is too small. In both stories, there appear to be parts missing. Perhaps there is a point in the time a story lies in the drawer beyond which using it doesn’t work very well. Or a point at which reworking a story in a different form or for a different purpose works less well.

    It’s just that I find it hard to accept any story of hers as weak! I find Munro’s mind so interesting that anything she says interests me.

    I do agree with you that if “The Found Boat” were one of say only ten Munro stories that survived, and this ten did not include “Changes and Ceremonies”, “Lives of Girls and Women”, “Baptizing”, or “Thanks for the Ride”, I would agree – that “The Found Boat” could not stand on its own. (Just to name some stories that deal directly with sexuality and girls or quite young women.)

    But as part of the constellation, I like what it adds – the trip down a river that is also filled with the things it picked up from the dump. I guess I liked it because it feels to me so rightly bleak.

    I cry uncle on this point – my argument vis-a-vis weak story versus weakness in a character was, in fact, weak. And I think your analysis – that the themes “are suggested but not fully controlled” sums it up. It’s hard for me to categorize her work with a grade, except that I can live with the difference between magnificent and interesting.

    I know that Munro has side-stepped the question of whether or not she is a feminist. But it was this side of the story that had my full attention. Men might see that differently.

  4. Trevor Berrett August 28, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    I think we agree that it’s hard to see any story of hers as weak, and I hope to think long and hard before doing so, but weakness is relative, and she’s never too weak. I’d not want to lose “The Found Boat”!

    Incidentally, you’ve often tracked Munro’s biography with her topics, and I’ve seen some try to do the same with “The Found Boat” making its way into her published work at this point. The suggestion is that it was somewhat by necessity, that, as a writer, Munro needed to put out a book at about this time, and it was particularly necessary since she’d just been divorced. I have no idea if any of that is true, but I thought you might be interested in the theory.

  5. Betsy August 28, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Yes, I do think that biographical context helps a reader understand a book. I appreciated your reference to it this time. I have not read any of the Thacker biography. I hope to obtain it, because once we are past this third collection, Sheila Munro’s memoir will no longer be useful.

    I think it is very helpful to know the timeline – just when was the story written, what was happening in the author’s life, and what was happening in the world in the years just before the story was written.

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