Boys And Girls by Alice Munro, 1968
The magic trick:
Making the narrator a willing – if frustrated – participant In her own gender dismissal
Alice Munro Week begins today at the SSMT, and these five stories are notable if for no other reason than their respective publication dates. Consider that we will span 44 years during these five days. Forty-four years! I can’t think of another writer with such a span of greatness. Most artists have a decade of peak production. Even the true greats really can only boast 30-year runs. Munro is just a freak of nature. I don’t know how she does it. And this is quality stuff, too. We’re not trotting out five shabby little stories from an overrated hack. She won the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature for a reason. Anyway, on to today’s magic trick:
“Boys And Girls” tells the story of a girl who finds as she grows older that she is being discouraged from her preferred “tomboy” activities and increasingly separated from her father in favor of her younger brother. In short, her parents are applying standard gender expectations on their children, and our narrator isn’t coping with it well.
It could’ve been a well-done but fairly straightforward portrait of injustice and the frustrations of adolescence, but this is Alice Munro we’re talking about here. She has such a finely tuned understanding of human emotion and reasoning, her stories never fail to highlight the rich subtleties and gray areas within every experience. So this isn’t only a “parents don’t understand” portrait, nor is it merely a cry against the male-driven world.
The narrator’s very nature contributes to her own transition. She wants to work outdoors with her father, it’s true. But she also admits to finding herself enjoying making her part of the bedroom “fancy” more and more lately. She also sets the horse free – putting sentimentality over pragmatism in a way that only confirms her parents’ gender beliefs. She is hemmed in by these narrow roles, but she also encourages them with her behavior. It’s never as simple as pure injustice, especially when you’re still growing up. Sometimes we’re fighting against our own natures. Or is it that our natures are actually shaped against our wills by family and societal norms? “Boys And Girls” raises the debate and lets the reader dwell upon the answer. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
“And then I can use her more in the house,” I heard my mother say. She had a dead-quiet regretful way of talking about me that always made me uneasy. “I just get my back turned and she runs off. It’s not like I had a girl in the family at all.”
I went and sat on a feed bag in the corner of the barn, not wanting to appear when this conversation was going on. My mother, I felt, was not to be trusted. She was kinder than my father and more easily fooled, but you could not depend on her, and the real reasons for the things she said and did were not to be known. 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. It did not occur to me that she could be lonely, or jealous. No grown-up could be; they were too fortunate. I sat and kicked my heels monotonously against a feed bag, raising dust, and did not come out till she was gone.