Saturday, December 01, 2007


by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction, 1969
Ballantine Books, mm pb, 473 p.
Book 3 of The Wonderland Quartet
Winner of the National Book Award 1970

(#48 for 2007, Fall Into Reading Challenge- Book #1, TBR Challenge- Book #6, Book Awards Challenge- Book #1)
Loretta Wendall, her daughter Maureen, and her son Jules are "them"—three characters held together by corroding hatred and mute love.

"Them" are also the forces that tear at their happiness—ignorance, intolerance, the loneliness of being a part and yet apart; the differences between rich and poor, white and black, the loved and the lover.

Through a complex field of time and space—Detroit and its environs between 1937 and 1967—the three Wendalls experience their everydays in the midst of ominous history, trying by almost any means to cope with the "thems" they cannot understand, each seeking desperately to placate a driving restlessness with a freedom of abandon, to find his own identity, to define his unique, invulnerable self. From the Depression of the thirties to the violence of the sixties, Miss Oates penetrates the point of view of each character to show the impact of events upon him, the subtle relationships of each to the other, the innermost feelings and emotions that spur each to his own dream and action.
As there often is in Oates’ stories, there’s a lot of violence in this book, and desperation and delusion and it’s quite depressing how the characters never seem to escape their past, how certain events continue to affect their lives long afterwards. Alternating the narrative among the main characters helped keep the story moving and made the characters really take shape even if I didn’t particularly like or sympathise with them much of the time.

If I remember correctly, I heard this book mentioned a few years ago during a discussion of Middlesex, primarily since it’s also partly set in Detroit during the riots, and I'd had it in the back of my mind to read it ever since. It took me quite a while to get through and it’s certainly not uplifting but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. This is the sixth book of hers I’ve read, and while The Tattooed Girl remains my favourite, followed by Beasts, it was interesting to read one of her comparatively earlier novels. The others I’ve read are The Falls, I Am No One You Know (short stories) and Black Water. I do have another couple of her books on the shelves and I’d like to read more by her. I just wish she’d slow down a bit, she’s too darn prolific! I’d have to read nothing but her works for the next couple of years to even dream of reading everything! I guess at least it means there’ll never be a shortage of her books to choose from.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Academy of Achievement Interview


  1. I read "Them" many years ago and recommend it to anyone who asks (and some who don't.) :) And, yes, there is that one part of "Middlesex" that concerns the Detroit riots, as does "Them." I love both books, though they are both so very different.

  2. Teresa- I was thinking it was probably you I heard about it from. They are very different books, and I did like 'Middlesex' better I think, but I'm glad I finally read 'Them'. Thanks for the suggestion. :)

  3. Her books are often quite depressing, aren't they? I would like to read this one some day. I've only read some short stories plus The Tattooed Girl, so I think I'll pick up Beasts next, but I want to get to this one someday too.

  4. Did I tell you a friend sent me a signed copy of Beasts after she did a talk at his university?? I was SO EXCITED. I take it down from its perch and pet it occasionally.

    I have several more of her books on my shelves: I Am No One You Know, Middle Age and The Tattooed Girl.

  5. Nymeth- They are usually quite dark and depressing. I can see why some people wouldn't like her stuff but luckily(?) I don't mind dark sometimes. Beasts isn't really a book to enjoy because of the subject matter but it really gets under your skin.

    Andi- I think you mentioned it on your blog. Very cool!

  6. I recently picked up a copy of Tattooed Girl and am looking forward to reading it. I read The Falls quite a while ago and was quite impressed with the author's writing. I'm looking forward to reading more by her.

  7. Wendy- I'll be interested to hear what you think of The Tattooed Girl when you get around to reading it. I'm looking forward to reading more by her too.


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