(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 daughter, Connie; this is the worst possible scenario, as far as Loretta is concerned.

With her domineering mother and a sullen, broken-spirited husband, the one bright spot in Loretta’s life is her son, Jules, who seems different from the rest of the family—lively and joyful and always involved in a new activity, sometimes creative and sometimes destructive. With his sister, Maureen, he is playing in the barn one day. He lights a match and drops it into a pile of hay, burning down the barn and receiving a whipping from his grandmother.

In the meantime, while Howard is in Europe, fighting in the war, Loretta receives letters from her friend Rita, wondering how she is and when she will visit. Longing for city life and to be away from her mother-in-law, Loretta announces that she and the children are moving to Detroit. After a long night of name-calling and threats from Mama Wendall,...

(The entire section is 969 words.)