Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
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.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In August, 1937, sixteen-year-old Loretta Botsford looks into her bedroom mirror and assesses herself, giddy in the belief that she is in love. Annoyed with her brother, Brock, whom she sees as shifty and malicious, she grudgingly makes supper for him before going out for the evening. In the course of arguing with him about the shiftlessness of their father, recently fired, Loretta notices that Brock has a gun.
The next morning, Brock finds a boy in Loretta’s bedroom and shoots and kills him. After realizing what her brother has done, Loretta runs to her friend Rita’s house in desperation, with Rita attempting to calm Loretta but offering no solution. Loretta leaves Rita’s house and sees a police officer watching her at the end of the street. She wonders if he knows what has happened and if he is waiting for her to confess. She takes him to the scene of the crime. He tells her that everyone will know what she had done with the boy before he died, and that he will do the same to her. The officer’s name is Howard Wendall.
Now married to Howard, and pregnant, Loretta begins living with him on the south side of Detroit, glad to be away from the home that she considers a dump and the family she considers hopeless. Just when Loretta believes that she will have a settled, normal life, Howard is suspended from the police force because of his illegal activities, and the Wendalls move to the country with Mama Wendall, her husband, and their...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
The them of Oates’s novel are Loretta Wendall, her daughter, Maureen, and her son, Jules, as well as the pressures of their culture, the targets of their hatred, and the multitude of characters that surround them. The novel is set in Detroit and its environs and spans the years 1937 to 1967—from Great Depression to racial unrest and riots. In between, the story is told through the layered perspectives of these three characters as it follows the intimate details of their lives.
In an urban slum, Loretta Botsford stands in front of a mirror admiring herself. Her father is an alcoholic casualty of the Depression, her mother is dead, and her brother, Brock—confused and alienated— has grown increasingly hostile. Despite this, Loretta is happy, and her appearance is one source of joy. She is gloriously generic—a Hollywood look that is shared by hundreds of other girls—and she feels a sense of security in their shared conformity. After arguing with Brock, Loretta goes out and meets Bernie Malin in the street. He comes back, they have sex, and she is awakened by a gunshot. Brock has killed Bernie, and Loretta runs out in terror. A policeman, Howard Wendall, brings her back to the apartment and then forces himself upon her.
Now married to Howard and pregnant with his (or Bernie’s) child, Loretta is content even though she feels her life has ended. Her father is institut tionalized, and...
(The entire section is 1203 words.)