Boys and Girls is the coming-of-age story of a girl on the cusp of adolescence who is pitted between what she wants and what is expected of her. Growing up in the fox farm of her father, she takes and volunteers for tasks and errands that would mistake her for a male farm hand. “Like to have you meet my new hired hand,” her father would tell visitors. “Could of fooled me. I thought it was only a girl,” would be the response.
The narrator prefers the farm labor over the domestic chores that her mother needs her help with. She does these with a sense of pride. But she’s growing up, and so is her brother. “Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help,” her mother would say to her husband. “And then I can use her more in the house.”
This winter also I began to hear a great deal more on the theme my mother had sounded when she had been talking in front of the barn. I no longer felt safe. It seemed that in the minds of the people around me there was a steady undercurrent of thought, not to be deflected, on this one subject. The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing. 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.
She gets told that girls don’t slam doors, girls don’t sit like that, girls don’t ask such questions for those are none of girls’ business. The awkward age of eleven makes her realize what gender roles are. When all her brother did was play on the swing or catch bugs, the fox farm was her oyster. Laird’s growing up is a threat not only to her importance in the farm but also to what she perceives is her freedom.
Munro sets the story in a small Canadian town called Jubilee. This seems to be the first contrasting element, for what sense of jubilation is there with “a background of cold blue sky and black pine forests and treacherous northern rivers?” The narrator’s relationship with her mother is complicated for she sees her as a kind person, kinder than her father, but an enemy at the same time. Horses have a special place in her heart, but these, much to her sadness, are turned into fox-feed.
Mack and Flora, two horses that are sold to her father, are introduced to the story to serve as metaphors for the narrator’s ideals. This is rather obvious, and the horses have been introduced as an aside, as something that the narrator almost forgets but cannot for it is central to the story’s climax. But it is planted early on, and is it not natural to have horses on a farm, even a fox farm? The narrator has a particular attachment with the stubborn female Flora, and this matches the strong, almost ferocious grip that she has on what she believes she is: a person free to do as she wants.
But how long can she stick up with this? Will she be able to break free from the mold that is made for her? Will she succumb to being only a girl?
Boys and Girls is set in a time where equality between the two sexes is nothing but a wild notion. Should women be seen as victims for being assigned to subservient roles? Should there be a celebration when one is elevated to what is deemed a superior position? “Maybe it was true,” the narrator muses. Maybe.
It’s not an absolute.
Published in: Dance of the Happy Shades
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars