Because I read these stories out of their intended order, this is where I met Lily, so I knew about her sass right from the start. But even if she hadn’t been sassy, the conventions surrounding male-female relations were restrictive (to say the least). And, in Gallant’s hands, comical.
“To my aunt the male nature was expected to combine the qualities of an Anglo-Canadian bank manager and a British war poet, which means to say a dead one. Folded inside the masculine psyche there had to be a bright yearning to suffocate face down in a flooded trench, to bleed from wounds inflicted by England’s enemies, even to be done in by a septic flea bite, if a patriotic case could be made against the flea.”
These expectations were not entirely out of step with the cultural norms. Husbands and wives had roles to play, and there wasn’t a lot of wriggle room. So, if a husband lingers after work to read a newspaper, perhaps it’s unsurprising.
“Their neighbours said Old Lady Quale gave him no peace to read the crime news at home. She thought a husband was supposed to keep moving, emptying the water pan under the icebox, examining for short circuits the loops of wiring that hung in fronds all over the house.”
And everyone does work hard in these households. Steven is aware of class issues: “Poverty and high principle seemed to occupy the same terrain – to my mind, a vacant lot.” Even if not everyone was: “Leo was not offended; he did not know he was poor. The Quales were better off than most of their neighbours.”
“In a War” reveals all sorts of tensions via a coming-of-age story that, in another writer’s hands, could be summed up as “boy meets girl”.