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“Half a Grapefruit” was first published in Redbook, then in the collection Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada, and the following year in the United States, with the volume being retitled The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose. It was thought that readers in the United States would not be familiar with the implication of the title’s question: a criticism of aiming above one’s origins. That is precisely one of the issues that “Half a Grapefruit” explores.

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Even though the stories in Who Do You Think You Are? are each complete and self-contained, they can be read as a bildungsroman, chronicling the development of Rose as she grows up in poverty; spends a few years at a university; experiences marriage, rearing a family, and divorce; and finally reaches a measure of success as an actress and university professor. The stories are arranged chronologically, but each story is a blend of the past and the present. Thus, even though “Half a Grapefruit” focuses on Rose’s high school days, it concludes with a reference to Rose coming back to her hometown to make arrangements at a nursing home for her stepmother.

Rose, on her way to her high school, crosses the bridge that marks the boundary between her impoverished side of town, West Hanratty, and the more prosperous Hanratty. The only one from her West Hanratty grade-school class to attend high school, she keenly feels the difference between herself and the students from Hanratty. When the students are asked about their breakfasts, Rose lies, responding with “half a grapefruit” rather than “tea and porridge”—which would have marked her as a country girl. Her presumption is recognized, however, and for weeks, and even years, she hears, or imagines, people calling softly after her, “half a grapefruit.” It is the schoolmate’s equivalent of “Who do you think you are?”

Just who is Rose? She is not like her crass stepmother, Flo, who encourages the tales Rose brings home from school about lost Kotex or about one girl’s sexual encounters under a dark porch. Rose does not tell Flo about her own uncertainties or her dreams. Flo responds with tales about herself working in a glove factory at the age of fourteen. Nor is Rose entirely like her father. They share a love of books, but she lacks his discipline and ability to work with his hands. Worse, she is a “disgrace” to him because her bookish tendency does not correspond to her gender; in his eyes a woman “should be naïve intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books, full of charming jumbled notions, superstitions, traditional beliefs. Women’s minds are...

(The entire section contains 674 words.)

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