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 her, is repeated in the lives of her children. As in the naturalistic novels of Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), Oates’s characters have the illusion that they are free to choose, and yet their choices apparently confirm societal patterns that they are powerless to ameliorate. Jules, for example, is attracted to a wealthy Grosse Pointe girl, Nadine, who shoots and nearly kills him. In spite of her fears of mistreatment, Maureen becomes a prostitute in order to acquire the money to escape from her home.
Oates uses time and place, Detroit from the late 1930’s to the race riot of 1967, as a context for her characters’ violent progress. An earlier Detroit race riot in 1943, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the student protests of the 1960’s are interwoven into the lives of these characters in order to show how individuals are part of a society, a world, that is in virtually constant ferment. Periods of peace, as Jules tells his sister at the end of the novel, are the exception, not the rule, and she will not be able to hide from that hideous truth—which, to the astonishment of many readers, liberates rather than depresses Jules.
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...
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