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Coming of Age
I had never thought our home very pretty, but that night it looked different. It looked clean and neat and peaceful, nestled there in the foothills of the Ozarks. Yes, on that night I was proud of our home. (6.14)
This is your classic "I went on a trip, and when I came home things felt different" situation. Even though the trip only last a day, Billy has grown up a bit and is seeing his home through different eyes.
As I ate, Papa sat down at the table and started talking man-talk to me. (6.32)
Billy isn't the only one who thinks he's different after his trip to town. His dad recognizes it, too, and starts treating him more like a grown-up. After all, it doesn't count unless other people see it.
After Papa left, I started thinking, "He doesn't even talk to me like I was a boy anymore. He talks to me like I was a man." (8.12)
Billy starts thinking about himself as a man partly because his father treats him like one. Moral of the story: if you treat your kids like they're mature, sensible people, sometimes they'll surprise you by acting like mature, sensible people.
"Aw, he'll be all right," Papa said. "Besides, he's getting to be a good-sized man now." "Man!" Mama exclaimed. "Why, he's still just a little boy." (8.19-20)
So Billy's dad might be treating him like a man, but clearly his mom isn't ready to make that leap. Ugh, MOMS, right? Sure, maybe she really did baby him—but it seems like part of this is Billy needing to define his own masculinity as being different from the way women act.
Bending over, she started kissing me. I finally squirmed away from her, feeling as wet as a dirt dauber's nest. My mother never could kiss me like a fellow should be kissed. (11.87)
So a little context: a dirt dauber is a nasty little wasp that builds mud nests. This gives you an idea of how much Billy doesn't like being kissed by his mom.
My head swelled up as big as a number-four washtub. I thought, "I'm not only big enough to help Papa with the farm. Now I'm big enough to drink coffee." (15.26)
Wahoo! Adulthood is getting to drink bitter, black liquid, just like a man. (Hey, you'll pry our coffee from our cold, dead, very adult hands.)
They treated me like a man, and even talked to me like a man. (15.109)
This has got to feel good: Billy is at the hunting competition, and all the dudes are treating him just like one of the guys. No wonder it's a highlight of his life.
Feeling big and important, I said, "I don't like the looks of this weather. We'd better be scooting for home." (18.106)
Winning the hunting competition gives Billy the confidence to make proclamations about the weather—again, just like a man who's watching out for the weaker members of his group. We're getting the picture that grown-up masculinity in Billy's eyes has a lot to do with standing up for the weak. (Well, it's better than some alternative forms of manliness we can think of.)
"Billy," he said, "there are times in a boy's life when he has to stand up like a man. This is one of those times." (19.166)
"Be a man" can sound pretty harsh—but in this case, it seems to give Billy the courage he needs. Being a man is an idea that Billy works toward. (And we have to say, that sounds a lot better than grown men playing Xbox on their parents' couch in suspended adolescence.)
I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn't be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there, too. (20.45)
Here's the sad part about growing up: you have to leave your past behind you. Sometimes literally. After all, you can't grow up if your room is still stuffed with action figures.
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