Joyce Carol Oates’s them begins with Loretta Botsford: “One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.” She is enchanted with her own reflection, and she dreams about the future. She is less pleased with her last name because it has “no melody.” She creates a kind of fairy-tale setting for herself that has been deeply influenced by her fascination with the movies. The reality is that she lives a cramped existence in a “fair-sized city on a Midwestern canal,” and her unstable brother, Brock, brutally ends her fantasies by murdering her boyfriend Bernie when he discovers them sleeping together.
Loretta is “saved” by Howard Wendall, a cop who takes her away from the scene of the crime. With him she starts a family, giving birth to Jules, Maureen, and Betty. Howard is an uncommunicative dolt who nearly destroys Loretta’s romantic view of herself. His silence depresses the whole family, which is also terrorized by his mother, Mama Wendall, until the day when Betty viciously fights back and knocks down her grandmother. Jules reacts to this tyranny by leaving home, and Maureen tries to evade it by withdrawing into herself. When Howard is killed in a factory accident, Loretta marries Furlong, a crude man who nearly beats Maureen to death.
Loretta’s behavior, the way she fosters illusions about her beauty and independence while marrying and succumbing to precisely the kinds of men who will crush...
(The entire section is 439 words.)