In a time and society pervaded with gender roles and labels, Boys and Girls tells a story of a young girl’s initial confrontation with domesticity. To set the stage, the protagonist is a 10-year old unnamed girl. Meanwhile, her brother was named synonymous to “Lord”, a titled gentleman. Apparently, Alice Munro will not take this treatment of women as second class citizens sitting down.
My father did not talk to me unless it was about the job we were doing… Nevertheless I worked willingly under his eyes, and with a feeling of pride.
Munro’s story was set on a fox farm in Ontario Canada, dated back in 1940s. The girl seeks attention and approval, particularly from her father. Therefore, she helps around the farm taking care of the foxes. Concurrently, house work makes her uneasy. She describes them as “endless”, compared to her father’s “ritualistically important” assignments.
I shot two rabid wolves who were menacing the schoolyard (the teachers cowered terrified at my back).
The girl has no perception of gender roles. Just as she dreams of saving people in the ongoing war, she imagines herself as the Jubilee heroine. She began to understand how society views her when a feed salesman came and her father introduced her as his “new hired hand”, to which the salesman replied “I thought it was only a girl”. Somehow, being regarded as “it” and “only a girl” struck a chord. And her grandmother’s constant reminders on how a girl should act and behave only made her refuse her gender identity all the more.
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.
Who could imagine Laird doing my work – Laird remembering the padlock and cleaning out the watering dishes with a leaf on the end of a stick, or even wheeling the tank without it tumbling over?
The winter she is eleven, the girl overheard her mother’s campaign, asking her father to let her work inside the house more instead. She unknowingly sensed the family’s inherent expectations from a son, and her resentment began to show. She started comparing herself with her little brother, and who shares more work.
Everything around her is changing. The girl needs to negotiate through her world that is full of truths in conflict with each other. The core of this story is how she will be comfortable with her own skin, not just to be accepted but also free.
And when my father found out about it he was not going to trust me any more; he would know that I was not entirely on his side.
Just the same, I did not regret it…
The big twist of the story is when she finally acts upon her ache to make a stand. Her father feed the foxes with horsemeat. They buy old horses that no longer had any use. They keep the horses all winter long, but they needed to be culled before the hay runs out. Mack, the male horse, was shot first and butchered. Disobeying her father’s orders, she and her brother peeped on a knothole to watch the whole event. In the days following, she kept on rehearsing the said event in her head, the pragmatic way her father and the hired man checked to see if Mack is already dead. As she considers these, 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, the female horse, is next. On the morning she is to be shot, she bolts. The girl was the closest one to the gate of the farm and her father yelled for her to close it. The girl got there just in time, but instead she held it open for Flora to escape. Her association with Flora signifies her stance to choose her own identity and freedom, thus, creating a certain disassociation with her father.
I didn’t protest that, even in my heart.
Maybe it was true.
Clearly, Boys and Girls is an examination of the formation of gender roles, as it focuses on how a young girl was being pushed into the female mold. Yet, the story doesn’t grant exemption on the role pushed on men. Although our heroine shows great adoration for her father and is jealous of her brother, she is also horrified for her brother. The boy is also bound for a different set of mold, evidently. Here, Munro shows that every one of us is driven by our need to identify ourselves and conquer it. She writes that the thirst for independence is naturally complicated because of all the conflicting circumstances and compromises in life. Perhaps, real freedom is constituted by awareness –the consciousness of knowing in our hearts who we are.
Published as the 9th story from Dance of the Happy Shades.
Rating: 4/5 stars