Boys and Girls, one of the short stories included in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades, is the story of a little girl who, at the tender, malleable age of 11, was forced into a gender-stereotyped box by her own family. She resists it, however, finding it difficult to fully comprehend gender roles. More so, she couldn’t understand why she had to accede to it.
Why, indeed? She was an able farmhand to her father – a fox farmer – more than her little brother Laird could ever be. She didn’t like the housework that her mother insisted she help her with; she felt unfit for it. What is wrong with that set-up?
Besides carrying water I helped my father when he cut the long grass, and the lamb’s quarter and flowering money-musk that grew between the pens. He cut with the scythe and I raked into piles. Then he took a pitchfork and threw fresh-cut grass all over the top of the pens to keep the foxes cooler and shade their coats, which were browned by too much sun. My father did not talk to me unless it was about the job we were doing. In this he was quite different from my mother, who, if she was feeling cheerful, would tell me all sorts of things – the name of a dog she had when she was a little girl, the names of boys she had gone out with later on when she was grown-up, and what certain dresses of hers had looked like – she could not imagine now what had become of them. Whatever thoughts and stories my father had were private, and I was shy of him and would never ask him questions. Nevertheless I worked willingly under his eyes, and with a feeling of pride. One time a feed salesman came down into the pens to talk to him and my father said, “Like to have you meet my new hired hand.” I turned away and raked furiously, red in the face with pleasure.
“Could of fooled me,” said the salesman. “I thought it was only a girl.”
What, exactly, did this mean? “Only a girl?”
As our young protagonist narrates her work on her father’s fox farm, she also reveals what she thinks of her family. That she esteems her father is quite evident, and being his farmhand makes her feel useful; it warms her heart. It is quite the opposite, however, with her mother, whom she does not trust; instead, she resents what she sees as her mother’s attempts to keep her away from working for her father. She feels offended when her mother assures her father that he would have “real help” in Laird in a few years’ time. And while she does not say it, she feels like her mother is the prime mover of the grand scheme to cage her in.
She loved me, and she sat up late at night making a dress of the difficult style I wanted, for me to wear when school started, but she was also my enemy. She was always plotting. She was plotting now to get me to stay in the house more, although she knew I hated it (because she knew I hated it) and keep me from working for my father. It seemed to me she would do this simply out of perversity, and to try her power.
Being the younger sibling, Laird is not a threat to her, but she sees him as one anyway because he is a boy, and a boy is apparently what her father needs to help in the farm. Nonetheless, she brushes this feeling aside and instead, treats Laird as someone inconsequential, someone who can tag along and bear witness to her mischiefs and not breathe a word to their parents. With Laird, at their current age, she was the big sister that the little brother looked up to, who followed her wherever she went, who hung on to her every word. Eventually, however, the gender roles would catch up to them, and the siblings must adapt accordingly.
Mack and Flora, the two horses that her father brought to the farm for fox feed, became the catalysts for our young protagonist’s choice – a decision that she felt, subconsciously, she was compelled to make. How could she fight off a role that was being shoved upon her by her own family? She was more than happy and content with the way things stood, but in her young mind, she was aware of – perhaps, intuitively entertained – the idea that she might have to succumb to these gender roles, sooner or later. The horses – Flora, particularly – enabled her to arrive at a decision, even though when she made it, she did not fully realize or recognize it.
Must a young child make such a decision?
As I was reading this story, and while writing this review, a song by the now-defunct American band, No Doubt, kept playing in my head. Called “Just A Girl,” part of its lyrics goes like this:
‘Cause I’m just a girl I’d rather not be
‘Cause they won’t let me drive late at night
I’m just a girl,
Guess I’m some kind of freak
‘Cause they all sit and stare
With their eyes
Sounds like a song our young narrator could relate to, yes?
Published in: Dance of the Happy Shades
Rating: 4/5 stars