Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fiction | Observations of Womanhood

"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. All women have had up til now is their connection with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals."

While reading Alice Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women, I made a new vow regarding my reading habits: I'm going to have to save reading any adult books for fall break, winter break, spring break, and summer break! As a middle school librarian, I'm able to give better recommendations by having read more middle grade books...and that's about all I have an attention span for during the school year. It causes me to do a great injustice to the more complex literature I very much want to read; I can rarely read 10 pages before falling asleep, causing my time spent reading a particular title to be at least 3 times longer than normal. I definitely can't keep track off the nuance or appreciate the subtleties by reading in such short spurts.

This is my big offense to a Nobel Prize-winning author and her book that speaks in small and subtle observations of human lives and emotions.

The Lives of Girls and Women centers around a young narrator named Del Jordan living in a small Canadian town in the 1940s and 50s. The world is consumed by a global war, but you don't really feel the immediacy of it in this rural atmosphere. She spends most of her time with her mother. Though she has a father and younger brother, the men of Del's life are very much in the background; they spend more time at the family-owned fox farm, and Del is surrounded, for the most part, by the women of Jubilee. It feels very much like a novel composed of short stories. Each chapter essentially serves as some musing on a monumental experience of Del's--her exploration of religion, her discovery of boys, her academic aspirations, her sexual awakening.

Del is a product of a particular time, setting, and situation. Her mother is a modern woman who is forced to find her own intellectual stimulation in a small rural town. She has a job selling encyclopedias; she doesn't depend on her husband. And though she dismisses God and rallies around birth control, she doesn't go quite so far as to believing fulfillment to be possible as an independent, childless woman. Del is very much a product of her feminist mother but, as the same time, somewhat terrified to follow in her footsteps.

"Her concern about my life, which I needed and took for granted, I could not bear to have expressed. Also I felt that it was not so different from all the other advice handed out to women, to girls, advice that assumed being female made you damageable, that a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self-protection were called for, whereas men were supposed to be able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what they didn't want and come back proud. Without even thinking about it, I had decided to do the same."

Del lives an adolescence atypical of women in her time and place; she follows an academic route and experiences a certain amount of exclusion from peers based more on experiences than feelings. We get the sense Del is somewhat of an outsider in Jubilee based on her intellect and interests, but she never begrudges the town or its people as lacking. In fact, she discovers that Jubilee is very much a part of her, as much as it is to any of its other residents. The experiences it gave created Del as a person, no better or worse or different than any one else--just entirely individual. They led her toward the truth and understanding of what it means to be human and, essentially, to just be.

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