In a trio of stories that parallel her father’s real life as a fox farmer, Munro explores the distinctive gender roles found within the house versus outside it, as seen through the eyes of the young narrators. Mysterious and inexpressive, rational and work-oriented, their fathers are far more appealing to these girls than are their mothers, who tend to be fussy, opinionated, and overly chatty. In “Images,” the narrator shares a quiet bond and tacit understanding with her father as they fetch rat traps along the Wawanash River. He will not condescend to her about being careful where she steps, and she will not pester him with questions about what they’re doing. In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” a fox farmer turned traveling salesman takes his daughter on a surprise tour of the countryside. At one house, she observes an unwelcoming customer nearly douse him with a chamber pot of urine; at another, she meets a woman whom she slowly understands to be her father’s former sweetheart. The excursion offers her a break from her routine of chores and acquaints her with a sense of possibility and danger previously unavailable to her.
Even as their fathers offer glimpses into a masculine world less fettered to decorum, the girls’ mothers continue to enforce standards of domesticity. The narrator of “Boys and Girls,” a proud apprentice to her father’s pelting operation, resists her mother’s ongoing campaign to smooth out her rough exterior, saying that she “continued to slam the doors and sit as awkwardly as possible, thinking that by such measures I kept myself free.” Yet the pressure to conform is ultimately too much to overcome: When her grandmother and younger brother join the efforts to keep her in line, the narrator ruefully concludes, “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.”
From story to story, one feels a sustained longing for independence. The desire to speak up—the aching need to call out personal or social injustice—struggles against the heavy weight of collective standards. This pressure is felt more keenly by Munro’s older protagonists, who face heightened stakes in their opposition and ever-greater consequences for failure. In “The Shining Houses,” a young mother, Mary, admires her elderly neighbor precisely because the old woman is “so unaccommodating.” Yet when an assembly of parents circulates a petition to chase the old woman off her property, which they consider an eyesore, Mary is unable to make her own convincing stand. She walks out on the group in weak defiance, knowing that she has succeeded only in alienating herself from the community.
For Mary, as with many of Munro’s other women, translating frustration into effective action proves to be a daunting, if not impossible, task. A voice raised in anger is often silenced; a sense of resolve is quickly snuffed out. That pattern repeats itself in “Postcard,” when a young woman learns that the man courting her over the years has gotten married behind her back. Her mother blames her for having been physically intimate with him short of actual marriage (a judgment he is spared), while the man himself, when she publicly confronts him, chastens her again by a show of complete indifference. Too late, she recognizes him as “a man that goes his own way,” and that she, as a woman, will never be afforded that same privilege.