them by Joyce Carol Oates

"But, honey, aren't you one of them yourself?"

I read my first work by Joyce Carol Oates earlier this year and really enjoyed it. I started with Black Water, which is a novella that tells a fictionalized account of the Chappaquiddick incident, when a young girl was found inside of a sunken car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy. After reading Black Water I knew I wanted to read more JCO and I knew I wanted something larger. Enter them; winner of the 1970 National Book Award, nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and book three of the Wonderland Quartet series.

In the introduction of the novel Oates describes that them is "a work of history in fictional form" and goes on to tell of a set of letters she received from an old student of hers when she taught at the University of Detroit. The girl expressed her restlessness in life and and overall feelings of resentment. Her "various problems and complexities overwhelmed" Oates and it was these letters that prompted Oates to write them. Parts of the letters appear half-way through the narrative. (I should mention the title is purposefully labeled with a lower-case "t," and details a specific "them".)

them follows two generations of the Wendall family and explores the forces that keep them in poverty and struggling to achieve happiness. The novel spans forty years, takes place in inner-city Detroit and ends during the race riots of 1967. Among other things, them explores the struggles of working class America, generational poverty, and obsessions of love, money and violence. If we focus on Maureen, the novel is a sort of bildungsroman, as we watch her grow from a small child into a woman. But the novel is more than Maureen's story. It is the story of a desperate family who desires a better life and struggles to understand those who are different from themselves.
I dream of a world where you can go in and out of bodies, changing your soul, everything changing and no fixed forever, becoming men and women, daughters, children again, even old people, feeling how it is to be them and then not hating them, out on the street. I don't want to hate.
This is a tough one to review because anything I say about this book will not do it justice. It's like trying to review Middlemarch; where do you start? Like one of my very favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, the works Joyce Carol Oates permeate with feminist themes and explore larger social issues that are still relevant in modern America. With a focus of the female characters Loretta Wendall and her daughter Maureen, Oates highlights the plight of working class women:
Oh, we women know things you don't know, you teachers, you readers and writers of books, we are the ones who wait around libraries when it's time to leave, or sit drinking coffee alone in the kitchen; we make crazy plans for marriage but have no man, we dream of stealing men, we are the ones who look slowly around when we get off a bus and can't even find what we are looking for, can't quite remember how we got there, we are always wondering what will come next, what terrible thing will come next. We are the ones who leaf through magazines with colored pictures and spend long heavy hours sunk in our bodies, thinking, remembering, dreaming, waiting for something to come to us and give a shape to so much pain.
The novel is beautifully written. Joyce Carol Oates certainly has a way with words; her prose it both eloquent and confident. The characters she imagines are sharp and memorable. I should say it's a bit of a downer; moments of happiness are few and far between. But don't let that deter you. It is absolutely worth the read.

Publisher: Modern Library Classics, 1969


  1. I am going to read the whole quartet next year and I'm so excited about it. Your review makes me want to start them (the books) right now. Great review.

  2. I loove JCO. I think she is a beautiful writer. Have you read We Were the Mulvaney's? I would definitely recommend that. I have read a few others too which were just as touching, but I have never heard of this one. Will definitely be looking out for it now!

  3. Excellent review, Brenna! JCO is an amazingly talented writer. This has been on my wish list for quite some time - think I may just have to purchase it before the TBR dare begins Jan 1.

  4. This sounds wonderful (and I especially like your line "her prose is both eloquent and confident"). I have so much JCO on my tbr list I really need to start digging in. Great review!

  5. I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read JCO. It's quite shameful considering I've had so many opportunities to pick her books up as they seem to be everywhere you go. This is a great review. If she's much like Atwood, I know I'll really enjoy her work. Thanks, Brenna!

  6. I looooooooove JCO. Probably my favorite female writer. I haven't read tTHEM, but I am very happy that you found the beauty in what she does.

  7. I love JCO and I have had this one on my shelf for years, so I am glad you thought it was great.

  8. I love Oates, but I've read her shorter works and certainly would like to dive into something longer and more involving. This one sounds fantastic, and I adored the passages you shared. Thanks, Brenna!

  9. marvelous review. JCO is an intention I haven't indulged in. I must change this. I think I will start with this a few short ones as well and makes sure this one is on my list.


  10. I like Oates as well. The books I've read have tended to be a little dark in some ways, but it's an intriguing sort of dark--the kind that makes you think and thrill.

  11. Funny, the only Oates I've read so far is Black Water. I'll check this one out. Also, I love that you said it's like trying to review Middlemarch. I did review Middlemarch last month and it was so hard!

  12. This sounds AMAZING! I mean, I already like Oates anyway, but this sounds so fab! In a whole downer-ish way, but still. Also, I agree with Becky above, We Were the Mulvaneys is excellent, but Blonde is still my favourite of her books :)

  13. Sounds like a great book. So it's not a problem to read this series out of order? If so, your review has me itching to start with this one!

  14. Heather, I just bought the first one, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and I am so excited!

    Becky, I haven't read We Were the Mulvaney's but I've got my eye on it!

    Joanne, Thank you! I'd say it's worth the purchase.

    Red, Thanks! :)

    Beth, Don't be embarrassed I only read her for the first time this year.

    Ben, Yeah she's pretty awesome. What is one of your JCO favorites?

  15. lola, Loved it!

    Andi, The longer work definitely paid off.

    contemplatrix, Good plan :)

    Melody, Exactly! Well put.

    Melissa, Ugh I don't think I could ever review Middlemarch. If I did, it would be super long!

    Laura, I've heard really great things about Blonde.

    fattyreader, No you can totally read them out of order! I know each book examines a different family in a different place and time of America. As far as I know, none of the stories are linked by plot or characters.