Friday, January 17, 2014

7th Challenge - 7th Review - Lives of Girls and Women

While it is well-known that Alice Muno stuck to short stories, it is almost as well known that her second book, Lives of Girls and Women is essentially a novel, as the stories are all about the same family, focused on the daughter, Del Jordan.  The stories actually track her life from very young childhood to the brink of young womanhood when she has to decide her fate, since it no longer appears she will go to university.  Furthermore, Lives of Girls and Women has an epilogue,* which normally is only tacked onto a novel and not a short story collection.

As I was reading Lives, I became convinced that I had read this back in my Canadian fiction class in the mid 90s, though I am not sure I could prove it in a court of law.  I am, however, fairly sure that this was the last Munro book I did read, and the rest will all be virgin territory.  While my suburban childhood was vastly different from Del's small-town childhood in Ontario in the 1940s, there are some eternal aspects of childhood that resonated with me.  My parents were both a bit unconventional, being fervent Democrats in a Republican stronghold (though at the time it was largely filled with the country-club moderate Republican types that have somewhat sadly been chased out of power).  Still, they never worried too much about keeping this under wraps (somewhat analogous to Del's mother who seems very out of place in Jubilee by actually taking a job selling encyclopedias in "Princess Ida").  I can't speak for them, but I got into numerous arguments over "Saint Reagan" and more bog-standard religious topics while growing up.  (I don't recall ever trying to get into an argument over religion, but I also wouldn't back down when I felt I was being proselytized, though now I do vaguely recall that my mother was put out once that I brought a copy of the Koran to some meeting and was (silently) reading from it.  I don't think she ever said anything about me reading from Mao's Red Book, but it was a smaller more discrete book that easily fit into one's pocket.  Maybe I was always trying to start something after all...)  Indeed in this era when there is actually far less tolerance between red staters and blue staters than there was in the 80s, I would almost certainly been kicked out of the Boy Scouts for not towing the line on being religious.  Del in general seems far more conventional than her mother, not wanting to draw too much attention to herself, whereas this never concerned me too much.

She struggles mightily with the big questions, particularly the idea of a caring, personal God in "Age of Faith," and I recall this desire to make sense of religion.  In my case, I gave up on organized religion quite early on, right around 3rd grade when I read The Book of Job and rejected the arguments therein as sophomoric.  While Del doesn't make quite as permanent or profound a break, she clearly undergoes a crisis of conscience.  I thought it very believable how her brother starts out more skeptical than Del but then tries to "bargain with God" to save a pet, whereas this seems to be the moment where faith leaves her for good, or at least at that time in her life.  I too bargained with God, when my mother was dying, though I knew it was a hopeless case.  Anyway, I well understand that searching for "Truth" that Del goes through; it obsessed me beginning at a very early age and lasted all through my undergraduate years.  Of all the stories/chapters in the book, "Age of Faith" was my favourite. 

However, "Changes and Ceremonies" also offered some profundities as it delved into high school cliques.  Del found herself interested in boys.  She shared some of her secrets with a friend, who then turned out to be somewhat untrue (at least at that time in their lives).  That resonates with me as well; no matter how well you think you know a school friend, betrayal is almost inevitable, maybe just due to the massive hormonal changes that affect all teenagers.  She soon grows apart from that friend (definitely shades of Atwood's Cat's Eye in there) but because their town is so small, it isn't that unusual that they reconnect.  In a more urban setting, they would have drifted apart and probably never come back into each others' circuit.


I think the chapter that was, for me, the hardest to read and to digest is "Baptizing."  Del is talented, one of the most talented students in Jubilee in years.  Yet she picks a terrible time to rebel (consciously or subconsciously) against these expectations placed upon her by her mother and the broader town.  She falls in love with a young man who is basically a backwoods hick.  Given that she had been in an odd relationship with the other smartest kid in town (Jerry Storey), this seems like a real come-down.  The reader worries that she is throwing her life away as the young man is insistent on her fitting in with his extended family, which she seems willing to do, and to get baptized, which she is not.  Things get pretty hot and heavy, and she manages to mess up her college entrance exams royally.  Or rather she passes them, but with such average marks that she will not get a scholarship and thus cannot attend university.  It is cold comfort to the reader that she does stick to her guns regarding baptism and the young man drops her before too long.  Del says that now she would "get started on her life," though of course she has thrown away her best chance at a "good life."  Still, she has seen enough that she knows there are at least some options open for women in the city, and the chapter hints that she will move to the city and become a telephone operator or engage herself with some other practical skill (the ones that her former friend Naomi learned).  It isn't completely bleak, but it is definitely a case where the reader wishes that the young would take heed of what their elders are trying to impart to them.

* I should mention that I found the "Epilogue" somewhat unsatisfying, as it actually seems to move slightly earlier in time to a midway point during "Baptizing" before her mediocre exam results are revealed and is not a proper epilogue at all.  Thus, we have no idea just what Del is able to do with her life or even her next steps.  Her future remains opaque.

One other note of possible interest is that I had planned on replacing my yellowing copy of the book with one of the new editions with Nobel Prize winner splashed across the cover.  However, another used copy came into my hands with some photos of a CBC production of the book.  I wasn't even aware that the book had been turned into a TV movie, all the way back in 1994.  I'm a bit curious about how this was handled/filmed, but not enough to make a major effort to track down a copy.  It doesn't look like it is readily available.

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