them is a story about urban life in America, centered on the experiences of a mother, Loretta, and her children Jules and Maureen. In the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book, Joyce Carol Oates explains that she based one of the characters, Maureen Wendall, on a young woman who had been her student at the University of Detroit, and indeed chapters eight and nine of the middle part of the book consist of letters written by Maureen to a former instructor whom she addresses “Dear Miss Oates.” Whatever the source that inspired the events in this book, it is highly unlikely that all of the events in the Wendall family’s life between 1937 and 1967 could be drawn from any one person’s experiences. This presentation of the story as “history in fiction form” does, however, help readers believe that all of the details that are rendered in graphic brutality are true to what life in the poorest of urban areas must have been like.
them is actually the final installment of a trilogy about life in various settings within American society. The first novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), follows forty years in the life of a farm family. The second, Expensive People (1967), examines the world of suburbia and the values that are held and lost there. The urban world depicted in them is so vicious to love and prone to random violence that in there is no peace to be found by its protagonists, Maureen and Jules Wendall, the siblings who have been hardened by city life: they leave to pursue empty dreams in California and suburban Detroit.