Some of the best writers in the world use geography to their advantage. That is not to say that such writers are adept at naming capital cities and at matching each country with their continents, no. What I’m saying is that writers often write with a sense of place by writing about the familiar terrains and sights that have dominated most of their lives in so vivid a manner that the reader is transported immediately. Gabriel Garcia Marquez used his hometown of Aracataca, Colombia as a model for the fictional town of Macondo, the setting of many of his works of fiction primarily One Hundred Years of Solitude; William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, the setting of most of his novels, which was inspired by Lafayette County in Mississippi where Faulkner spent most of his life. There’s John Steinbeck who has held a lifelong fascination with Salinas Valley where he set most of his fiction. Writers write about what they know and what else can be more familiar than the surroundings that they grew up in? In the case of Alice Munro, what can be more familiar, more known to her, than Huron County where she was born?
It makes sense therefore that her story ‘Boys and Girls’ be set in Huron County or at least a close approximation to it. Reading ‘Boys and Girls’ immediately transport the reader to the rural and small-town setting of Munro’s childhood. The vast wilderness, the cold winters, and the alienating atmosphere is vividly depicted in the page as if the events are unfolding as you read it, the reader being an unacknowledged spectator to everything that is happening. This is what sense of place is, the successful transposition of the writer’s imagined setting into the reader’s mind. Consider how Munro describes a cold room:
We were afraid at night in the winter. We were not afraid of outside though this was the time of year when snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales and the wind harassed us all night, coming up from the buried fields, the frozen swamp, with its old bugbear chorus of threats and misery. We were afraid of inside, the room where we slept. At this time upstairs of our house was not finished. A brick chimney went up on wall. In the middle of the floor was a square hole, with a wooden railing around it; that was where the stairs came up. On the other side of the stairwell wee the things that nobody had any use for anymore – a soldiery roll of linoleum, standing on end, a wicker bay carriage, a fern basket, china jugs and basins with cracks in them, a picture of the Battle of Balaclava, very sad to look at. I had told Laird, as soon as he was old enough to understand such things, that bats and skeletons lived over there; whenever a man escaped from the county jail, twenty miles away, I imagined that he had somehow let himself in the window and was hiding behind the linoleum. But we had rules to keep us safe. When the light was on, we were safe as long as we did not step off the square of worn carpet which defined our bedroom-space; when the light was off no place was safe but the beds themselves. I had to turn out the light kneeling on the end of my bed, and stretching as far as I could to reach the cord.
But sense of place is only half of what makes ‘Boys and Girls’ a great short story. What is style after all if the content is neglected? There needs to be a well-told story and the writer must reveal herself and her intentions through the words that the readers are reading or else the craft will be lost under a pile of incoherent narrative. The story of ‘Boys and Girls’ revolves around a young child growing up in her father’s fox farm where she helps around in what is traditionally perceived as masculine roles like bringing water to the foxes and helping her father cut the grass. However, while she devotes herself to helping her father, she avoids doing the housework with her mother.
It seemed to me that work in the house was endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing; work done out of doors, and in my father’s service, was ritualistically important.
As a child, Munro’s protagonist is unaware that she is expected by society to conform to traditional gender roles but it’s pernicious presence is ever present in the story. A girl is someone you don’t expect to be a farm hand, a girl isn’t real help compared to boys, a girl is someone whose only place is inside the house, a girl must not dream of being the hero, a girl is just a girl.
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.
Eventually, society succeeded in pushing her into what she was expected to become, becoming aware that she is changing, and that being a girl is something that you can’t escape. There are things that people expect from a girl and she just cannot eschew them just because she wants to. Things are expected of her and to do otherwise would be considered an aberration. Can she escape the life that has been patterned for her by society? Is there more to life other than what sex we are born with? There is a message here about gender relations that every reader can take away without Munro coming off as preachy. She’s telling it like it is, like how it would happen in the real world (maybe it did happen in the real world, Munro herself grew up as the daughter of a fox farmer) and asking the reader if such things are right, if such things are just. Munro’s protagonist is a girl and is being dismissed by the boys in her family which did not make Munro’s protagonist indignant but instead resigned, crying in the face of her family’s dismissal.
Everybody at the table was looking at me. I nodded, swallowing food with great difficulty. To my shame, tears flooded my eyes.
My father made a curt sound of disgust. “What did you do that for?”
I didn’t answer. I put down my fork and waited to be sent from the table, still not looking up.
But this did not happen. For some time nobody said anything, then Laird said matter-of-factly, “She’s crying.”
“Never mind,” my father said. He spoke with resignation, even good humor the words which absolved and dismissed me for good. “She’s only a girl,” he said
I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.
Is there something wrong with this? Father looking with disgust, brother being dismissive, mother silent, daughter ashamed. There must be or else Munro wasted all that craft for nothing.