The Boy Who Tried to Be a Man

I used to have a pine tree in my backyard which was perfect for hiding from the world. I could climb up into the branches until I was well above the roof of the house. About thirty feet up there was a knot of branches where a boy could perch and read, concealed by a curtain of pine boughs. Reading itself was not such a bad thing for a boy to do—not lots of boys did it, but enough did that it was allowable—but I had a shameful secret: I liked to read books that would make me cry. I didn’t read those books exclusively, but when I had one, I needed my privacy.

Up in that pine tree, I read and I cried over Charlotte’s Web, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and Lizard Music (something about recovering that stuffed squirrel struck a chord in me). But when it came to making me cry, the undisputed champion was Betsy Byars. Betsy Byars made me cry more often than the bullyish clique that followed me around in seventh grade. The lonely, quirky boys in books like The Cartoonist and The TV Kid were (I thought) the most like me of any boys I could find in books.

My favorite of her books is The Midnight Fox. The book is about Tom, a city boy who goes to live in the country with his aunt and uncle while his parents vacation in Europe. As Tom approaches the farm where he will spend the summer, he feels insecure:


I thought… that perhaps Aunt Millie and Uncle Fred were letting me come because they thought I was a great athlete with muscles like potatoes who could toss hay into the loft without spilling a straw.

[T]hey would be saying things like “Now we have someone to break the wild horses for us,” and “Now we have someone to get the boulders out of the north forty.” Then I would step out and they would say “But where is the big boy?” and I would say “I’m the only boy there is” [27].

This line about “the big boy” must have stabbed me in the heart. I was a small kid, and knew all too well the worries about not being big enough. Indeed, I knew all too well the worries about not being boy enough.

This theme continues in the following pages, for example, when Tom vows not to cry at being abandoned by his parents:


Sometimes my dad would get real disgusted with me because I didn’t control myself too well. I used to cry pretty easily if I got hurt or something was worrying me [31].

And again when Tom sees his room, vacated by his older cousin:


I knew right away what kind of boy Bubba had been by looking at that room. There was not a person in the world who could have thought the room was mine. Just one glance at me and anyone would know that I had never shouldered the shotgun on the rack, that I had never stuffed the squirrel on the bookcase, and that I had never collected all those different bird eggs and nests in the book case [37].

And yet again when his aunt speaks to him a moment later, warning him not to climb out the window and down the tree outside:


“I won’t climb out,” I assured her.

“Oh, go along with you. I know boys.”

“No, I’m afraid of heights” [37].

In short, Tom’s real problem isn’t being a city boy in the country. It’s that he doubts he’s masculine enough to cut muster. Most of all, Tom feels wanting in comparison to his rugged, rural uncle.


I still did not feel at ease with Uncle Fred. He was a large man, powerfully built, and to see us together you would think we would make the perfect cover picture for a story called, “The Boy Who Tried To Be a Man.” There was a tremendous physical difference between us, and there was something else I don’t know how to explain. We couldn’t talk to each other [72].

Tom’s life is changed when he sees a black fox; a female with kits which he begins to watch for and protect. His uncle wants to kill the fox—she’s a threat to their chickens—but Tom sabotages his efforts. He is sure this softness for wildlife will surely make him an utter failure in his uncle’s eyes, but when he ultimately frees one of her kits from a cage and confesses, Tom and his uncle forge an unforgettable connection.


He looked at me and I knew he was seeing through all the very casual questions I had been asking all summer about foxes, and seeing through the long days I had spent in the woods. He was remembering the sorry way I had tried to keep him from finding the fox’s den and the way I had looked when we did find it. I think all those pieces just snapped into place right then in Uncle Fred’s mind, and I knew that if there was one person in the world who understood me it was this man who had seemed such a stranger.

He cleared his throat. “I never liked to see wild things in a pen myself,” he said [147].

This is a remarkable scene, and a remarkable book, because it understands boys so completely, the insecurity about their masculinity and affirming it for those sensitive boys who save foxes or climb into pine trees to read and cry.

In all regards, The Midnight Fox is a “quiet” book, one where not much happens, and one which, by conventional wisdom, should fare poorly with boys. Yet it speaks more directly to the heart of being a boy than any other I can name.


All excerpts from: Byars, Betsy. The Midnight Fox. New York: Viking, 1968.

Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville, Mamba Point, and The Tanglewood Terror. He is also the author of the Topps League chapter book series. He still cries at the end of good books and doesn’t care who knows it.