The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl living on a fox-breeding farm with her parents and younger brother, details the work of the farm: the killing, skinning, and preparation of the silver foxes; their feeding and watering; and the killing of horses to get meat to feed the foxes. All this work is a normal and everyday part of life to the narrator, who takes great pride in helping her father with the outdoor chores. She blushes with pleasure when her father introduces her as his “hired man” but dreads the dreary and monotonous work inside the house. She is apprehensive about her mother’s plans for her when she grows older and must take on more traditional female roles. Though she loves her mother, she also sees her as an “enemy” who is plotting to take her away from more important pursuits. The girl also tries hard to avoid her grandmother, who constantly nags her to behave in more ladylike ways.
During the winter the family keeps two horses until they must be killed for meat for the foxes. Mack is an old and indifferent horse; Flora is a high-stepping and nervous mare. The girl has never seen a horse killed before, and curiosity compels her and her brother to watch their father shoot Mack. Though she tries to shrug off Mack’s death as inevitable, she worries about its effect on Laird. She also feels ashamed, wary, and restrained around her father for the first time.
Other things are changing. Laird is now big and strong enough to match his sister in a fight. The narrator starts wondering if she will be pretty when she grows up; she tries to fix up her side of the room that she shares with Laird to make it more adult; she feels increasingly distant from both Laird and her father but is still not entirely allied with her mother. In the past she fantasized about being a hero or a rescuer; now she daydreams about being rescued.
The story climaxes when the narrator realizes that Flora will be shot the next day. She is playing with Laird in the field when Flora breaks away from her father and Henry, and tries to escape toward the lane. After her father shouts to her to run and shut the gate, she reaches the gate in time to prevent Flora from getting away. When Flora runs toward her, however, she opens the gate as wide as she can. As Laird and the men go out in a truck to catch Flora, the girl puzzles over why she has disobeyed her father and sees that she is no longer “on his side.”
When the men return after shooting and skinning Flora, Laird announces that his sister is responsible for the horse’s escape. When told that his daughter is crying, the father says that “she’s only a girl.” The words both forgive the girl and push her aside.
‘‘Boys and Girls’’ opens with the unnamed narrator describing her father and his work. He is a fox farmer who raises silver foxes which are skinned so that their fur can be sold to fur traders. The narrator, a girl at the time the story takes place, and her smaller brother Laird, enjoy watching their father doing skinning work, which he does in the cellar of their house each fall or early winter when the foxes’ coats are prime. The girl also describes her father’s farm hand, Henry Bailey.
She tells how in bed at the end of the day she can still smell foxes, and that this makes her comfortable. She describes the room she and her brother share, and the elaborate rules they have so that they feel safe within the surrounding darkness of night. At first, with the bedside light still on, they are ‘‘safe’’ as long they do not stray beyond the carpet surrounding their beds. This is to keep them suitably removed from the terrifying area beyond their beds that serves as a sort of attic storage space, and which seems very menacing when it is dark. Once the light is off only the beds themselves are safe, and the two children sing songs until Laird falls asleep. Once Laird is asleep, the narrator settles down to imagine adventurous stories in which she is in the role of the...
(The entire section is 1,298 words.)