And perhaps it’s partly because I have recently pulled my copy of The Lives of Girls and Women off my shelves that I am particularly caught by the fact that it seems the same title could have been used for The Dance of the Happy Shades, and most especially for this group of three stories: “Postcard”, “Red Dress-1946” and “Sunday Afternoon”.
Even the one story in this collection that’s been told from a male perspective is actually, in this reader’s opinion, more about Lois than it is about him. The overarching preoccupation of the collection seems to be: what does it mean to be a girl, and how does that influence the ways in which we become women?
Take the last story, “Boys and Girls”, and its definition:
“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.”
Do you need to read that again? I did. A few times. Even though it seems to be a simple question: what does it mean to become a girl? What does it mean to be female? What does it mean to speak out when it’s expected that you remain silent?
“We began to pull away, George settling down on the back seat to sleep. And then we heard the female voice calling after us, the loud, crude, female voice, abusive and forlorn: “Thanks for the ride!” (“Thanks for the Ride”)
What is it about Lois’ voice that makes it loud and crude, abusive and forlorn? Is it simply that her voice is female? Is it that she raised her voice when she should have kept still? Should she have remained the “angel in the house”?
“So a house is not the same for a woman. She is not someone who walks into the house, to make use of it, and will walk out again. She is the house; there is no separation possible.” (“The Office”)
The way that women (and girls) experience the world, the way in which the world views them: it’s at the heart of every story here, isn’t it? But back to “Boys and Girls”, wherein it’s most clear.
Take when the narrator’s father jokingly introduces his young daughter, who is helping him with chores, to a salesman, as his new hired man, and the salesman says “Could of fooled me…I thought it was only a girl.”
Only a girl.
But the young girl is proud in that moment, believing herself to be indispensable and capable. You can feel her heart swell on the page.
Yet, only a few pages later, her father uses the salesman’s words against her. “He spoke with resignation, even good humour, the words which absolved and dismissed me for good.” That scene is sharp, like a slap.
And all of this is snarled up with this week’s three stories.
In “Postcard”, Helen’s mother is chiding her grown daughter, telling her that she ought to be ashamed. Of what? She doesn’t say, exactly. But it’s clear to Helen, and to readers who are well acquainted with the double standard. Here it is: you’ll recognize it, between the lines.
“But once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her.”
“What do you mean by that, Momma?”
“If you don’t know am I supposed to tell you?”
Of course it’s not only Helen’s mother who is holding her daughter to another standard; even Buddy Shields tells the story from a different slant, referring to another couple entirely, but expressing the same principle.
“You would know both of them if I said their names and you’d know they had no business being in that car together. One is a married lady. And worst is, by this time her husband is wondering why she don’t come home from choir practice … and he has reported her missing.”
Yup, it’s the married lady whose transgression is “the worst”, that which is worthy of discussing in greater detail. And before she was a married lady, she was “just a girl”.
A girl like the narrator in “Red Dress-1946”, unsure whether to opt out of the attentions of the boys at the dance, or to pursue them, or to accept them complacently when they are offered.
A girl like Alva, in “Sunday Afternoon”, who is kissed and both fears and desires the complications that will ensue.
A girl like May, in “A Trip to the Coast” (but I know, I’m getting ahead of myself, as that’s one of next week’s stories), who is told that she can’t go swimming in the usual place anymore because “that’s where all the boys go. I told you before. You’re getting too big for that.”
Where the world divides for boys and the girls: it’s the stuff of Alice Munro’s stories. What stood out for you in this group of stories?
Walker Brothers Cowboy; The Shining Houses; Images JAN19
Thanks for the ride; The Office; An Ounce of Cure (above) JAN26
The Time of Death; Day of the Butterfly; Boys and Girls FEB 16
Postcard; Red Dress – 1946; Sunday Afternoon (above)
A Trip to the Coast; The Peace of Utrecht; Dance of the Happy Shades MAR2