45 pages 1 hour read

Alice Munro

Boys And Girls

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1964

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Boys and Girls”

Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” was first published as an individual story in 1964 and was also included in Munro’s 1968 collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. The story takes place at one home in rural Canada, and the narrator, a soon to be 11-year-old girl, carefully describes her father’s work as a fox farmer. The work is seasonal, but the narrator begins in the “several weeks before Christmas” when her father would begin the task of removing fox pelts from the “small, mean, and rat-like” bodies in the basement. Her mother, the narrator notes, “disliked the whole pelting operation” (Paragraph 2). The family’s “hired man,” Henry Bailey, helps the narrator’s father and teases the children.

At that time of year, the narrator and her younger brother, Laird, “were afraid at night.” They sleep upstairs in an unfinished room where, she imagines, “bats and skeletons” live. The children have “rules to keep [them] safe,” which define which parts of the room they can enter with or without the lights on (Paragraph 4). Both children sing themselves to sleep. Once Laird falls asleep, the narrator starts to tell herself stories that continue “from night to night.” These stories are about her, “when [she] had grown a little older; they took place in a world that was recognizably [hers], yet one that presented opportunities for courage, boldness, and self-sacrifice” (Paragraph 7).

Like the narrator and her brother, the foxes also live in an enclosed space. Their pen is “surrounded by a high guard fence, like a medieval town, with a gate that was padlocked at night” (Paragraph 8). All of the foxes have names, given by the narrator, her father, and Laird. The narrator’s job is to provide the foxes with water every day. But despite everyone’s familiarity with the foxes, “naming them did not make pets out of them, or anything like it” (Paragraph 10).

The narrator notices that, when she helps her father with the foxes, he is quiet, which is “different from [her] mother” who often told her stories (Paragraph 11). He refers to her as a “hired hand” to a visitor, which she considers a compliment. The visitor, though, remarks: “I thought it was only a girl” (Paragraph 11).

One night, the narrator overhears her father and mother discussing her. They meet in front of the barn, which is an “odd thing” because her mother “did not often come out of the house” (Paragraph 13). The narrator overhears her mother comfort her father, encouraging him to “wait till Laird gets a little bigger,” because then he’ll “have a real help” (Paragraph 14). Her mother longs to have help in the house; at the moment, she says how “it’s not like [she] had a girl in the family at all” (Paragraph 16).

The narrator recognizes that her mother loves her but is also her “enemy.” She recognizes a plot to “get [her] to stay in the house more,” though she notes that, in retrospect, “it did not occur to [her] that [her mother] could be lonely, or jealous” (Paragraph 17).

Things change the winter that the narrator is 11 years old. Her grandmother visits, and she begins “to hear a great deal more on the theme [her] mother had sounded when she had been talking in front of the barn” (Paragraph 21). The family’s foxes eat horsemeat from old local horses who are put down. As more farmers purchase tractors at the end of World War II, the narrator’s family has more horses to buy. That year, they purchase two, Mack and Flora, who the narrator’s father and Henry Bailey will shoot in the spring.

Laird and the narrator sneak into the barn to watch from the loft, and they see their father and Henry shoot the horse. The narrator notices how Laird “had drawn a long, groaning breath of surprise” after their father shoots the horse, and she hurries him out of the barn. As Laird becomes “young and obedient again,” she remembers a time, years before, when she endangered him on the top beam of the barn (Paragraph 32). She makes Laird promise not to tell that she brought him to watch the horse killing, and then she takes him into town to watch a movie.

Two weeks later, when she knows that they will kill Flora, she “[doesn’t] think of watching it.” She is “a little ashamed” and has “a new wariness, a sense of holding-off,” in the way she thinks about her father (Paragraph 36).

But when the men take Flora out of the barn, she breaks free and runs through the backyard. It is “exciting” to the narrator “to see her running, whinnying, going up on her hind legs, prancing and threatening like a horse in a Western movie” (Paragraph 38). When Flora runs to the gate, the narrator’s father and Henry Bailey shout to her to run and close the gate. But “instead of shutting the gate,” she “[opens] it as wide as [she can]” (Paragraph 41).

The men, including Laird, pass through the gate to catch Flora, and the narrator “[shuts] the gate” (Paragraph 42). She returns inside to her mother, knowing that they would catch Flora but also fearing what would happen, because she “had never disobeyed [her] father before.” The narrator recognizes the she is “on Flora’s side” (Paragraph 43).

The narrator sits upstairs on her bed, in the room which she had begun to decorate, and reflects on her and Laird’s nighttime routine. They “did not sing at night any more.” In her nighttime stories, “something different was happening,” and instead of rescuing others, “somebody would be rescuing [her]” (Paragraph 45).

When the men return, Laird boasts that “[they] shot old Flora” and holds up “a streak of blood” on his arm as proof (Paragraph 46). Over a meal, Laird tells the group that it was the narrator’s fault that Flora escaped. At her father’s disbelief, and “to [her] shame,” the narrator feels herself start to cry. She has no answer when he asks her why, but, “with resignation,” he dismisses her with the phrase, “she’s only a girl.” The story ends with the narrator wondering: “Maybe it was true” (Paragraph 48).