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Monday Book Review: them January 25, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in Book Reviews.
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Last year when we posted about the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, I was surprised at how few of the winners I had read. Since then, I read and reviewed the novella The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty, and now I have finally finished and will review them, by Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award winner in 1970.

them (note: the title is intentionally not capitalized) is a novel about 3 main characters, a mother and 2 of her children during the 3 decades following World War II and their pursuit of the American Dream. Loretta, the mother, begins the novel as a beautiful young teenager, full of hope for a life of fortune, leisure and happiness. Of course, if that was how her life had turned out, the story would barely be worth writing, and so it’s no spoiler to tell you that instead, she ends up pregnant, married to a dirty cop and living in her in-laws house until her husband gets in trouble and they all move out to the country. The cop-husband leaves them all to fight in the war, leaving Loretta with 2 young children and another on the way. After some time of putting up with her in-laws, Loretta packs up all the kids and moves back to the city (Detroit) where her kids grow up as street urchins. She shuffles them from one dirty apartment to another, always trying to make a step up, but never quite making it. As the kids get older, their father returns, and both parents are unhappy drunks. The older 2 children, Jules and Maureen, take on more and more responsibility, while dreaming of how their futures will be so much better than their parents’. They will move out, make money, get married and have real lives. The novel continues as Jules and Maureen get older and follows their attempts to make it out of poverty, to escape their roots and to make something better of themselves. I can’t say whether or not they are successful, but when the novel ends, each of the characters is exactly where I would expect them to be.

I found this quote about Ms. Oates’ writing for this novel on the National Book Award Blog, and can’t say it better:

Her style allows the reader to focus on story without the intrusion of unfamiliar language, so artfully done, an exercise in event, an adventure in domestic darkness.

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