The opening of “Changes and Ceremonies”:
Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on the wheels. And they would say anything.
They would say softly, “Hello hooers.”
And the opening of “Lives of Girls and Women”:
The snow banks along the main street got to be so high that an archway was cut in one of them, between the street and the sidewalk, in front of the post office. A picture was taken of this and published in the Jubilee Herald-Advance, so that people could cut it out and send it to relatives and acquaintances living in less heroic climates, in England or Australia or Toronto. The red-brick clocktower of the post office was sticking up above the snow and two women were standing int he archway, to show it was no trick. Both these women worked in the post office, had put their coats on without buttoning them. One was Fern Dogherty, my mother’s boarder.
Of course it’s easy to say, when I’ve pulled them from the text myself, but I think I would recognize them to be Alice Munro’s work. And maybe it’s because I’ve been spending so much time in her company, but I think I’d recognize Del’s voice too.
And of course if the titles of the stories were included, I would immediately recognize the title story’s name, echoing the author’s most famous collection.
One of the reasons that Lives of Girls and Women is so well known is its status as a banned book. Or should I say Banned Book.
In fact, the CBC archives suggests that the attacks on it in the 1970s in Alberta and the highly publicized 1976 attack from the Peterborough, Ontario school board were the impetus for Canada’s Freedom to Read Week. (You can check out their site and the list of challenged materials here.)
What was so shocking? Technically, the “explicit language and description of sex scenes”. At least that’s what the newspapers reported at the time.
In June 1978, Alice Munro (with other members of the Writers’ Union of Canada) spoke out against the ban, which also included Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. (Munro discusses her defense in the January 17, 1979 episode of “Take 30”, the broadcast available through the CBC Archives here.)
But what was particularly shocking to so many was the frank expression of a woman’s sexuality, and this week’s stories, “Changes and Ceremonies” and “Lives of Girls and Women”, take Del to the precipice of these experiences.
As Del’s friend, Naomi, explains, girls have a unique experience of — and, at least according to Naomi’s mother, responsibility for — sex.
From “Changes and Ceremonies”:
“‘My mother says it’s the girl’s fault,’ said Naomi, ignoring me. ‘It’s the girl who’s responsible because our sex organs are on the inside and theirs are on the outside and we can control our urges better than they can. A boy can’t help himself,’ she instructed me, in a foreboding, yet oddly permissive, tone of voice, which acknowledged the anarchy, the mysterious brutality prevalent in that adjacent world.
Del’s mother, although startlingly modern in some respects, also has some rather traditional opinions on the matter. In speaking of her boarder Fern’s relationship with Mr. Chamberlain (which Naomi has said is more complex than Del had supposed), Del’s mother says:
“‘They enjoy each other’s company,’ she said. ‘They don’t bother about any nonsense.’
Nonsense meant romance; it meant vulgarity; it meant sex.”
Had Del’s mother understood the dimensions of Fern’s experience, she might well have been surprised. But Del’s experience is something else, which surely would have shocked her mother.
In “Lives of Girls and Women”, Del notes: “My mother inhabited a different layer of reality from the one I had got into now.”
I think it’s this “different layer of reality” that really got those book banners’ knickers in the proverbial twist. It wasn’t simply that there was talk of sex in this book: it was the fact that it was a woman’s voice.
“There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come.”
Lives of Girls and Women, published in 1971, contributed significantly to that change. Alice Munro surely did her bit in allowing Del to speak.
Reading Schedule for Lives of Girls and Women:
The Flats Road; Heirs of the Living Body MAR9
Princess Ida; Age of Faith MAR16
Changes and Ceremonies; Lives of Girls and Women (above)
Baptizing; Epilogue: The Photographer MAR30