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Small Avalanches and Other StoriesReview - Small Avalanches and Other Stories
by Joyce Carol Oates
HarperTempest, 2003
Review by Patricia Ferguson, Psy.D.
Oct 14th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 42)

Reading Joyce Carol Oates is not light reading. She writes stories that typically involve teenagers, with a darker side of life as her theme. Most of the teenagers are poor, sexually abused, and in other ways feeling "different" from the other teenagers. Her stories are filled with suspense, often ending with the reader having to imagine such a terrible outcome that words cannot even express.

†The mothers in the stories are ineffective, unavailable, usually naive, especially when it comes to the problems of their teenage daughters. Sometimes the mothers are also abused and otherwise unhappy. The men in their lives come and go, and there are usually no real father figures or stable men in the stories.

Internalized "badness" is the real theme of the book. The young teenagers do things that only "bad" girls do, and get away with it. For example, in one story three sisters broke into their mother's boyfriend's house and found a gun. When the man came home and discovered them, they claimed he raped one of them. Even though all three sisters knew it was a lie, the mother believed them and ended her relationship with the one man who loved her.

There is a contrast between home life and life away from home for these young teenagers. This feeling is one I remember myself. Somehow it seems that, as Oates puts it, you are no longer a child, but "not entirely not-a-child." What Oates captures so well is that painful and lonely period in your life when it feels that your parents cannot possibly understand the awful world of being a grown-up, almost. The defense against the loss of innocence for Oates is being "bad," a defense many adolescents choose. What the reader has to wonder after reading so many stories by Oates like this is what her life was like. It seems that story after story is dark, sad, scary, and that young people lose their innocence before their time.

This book is about American children, who really have it much better than most countries. Yet, she shows that there is a common experience for adolescents no matter what culture they are from. Perhaps the exception to that rule is the third world countries, where basic needs and survival are primary concerns. But for non-third world countries, adolescents seem to have similar experiences because basic needs are usually met. Of course, many of Oates' characters live on the poor side of town, compared to the other adolescents they know, but relative to third world countries there is no comparison. So it would be fair to say that she is writing about American experiences rather than children from other countries. Oates is not a political writer; she is a writer of the American experiences of young adults or older children.

This book is not the kind of book a reader would want to read at bedtime. It is not relaxing, certainly not boring, and might even give you nightmares. The only other book by Oates that I have read is We Were the Mulvaneys and it is just as dark as the stories in this book except the reader becomes more familiar with each character and it is much more intricate simply because it is longer. But in "Small Avalanches" Oates shows that a short story can get the message across.

In summary, I would say that Oates is an excellent writer, an American classic. However, the reader needs to be prepared for some somber reading, and may need to take breaks with lighter activities or reading. It can be pretty depressing to read story after story of her work no matter what state of mind the reader is in. But she should be on the required reading list for high schoolers, because I think many of them could relate to her stories and may not feel so alone.

†††††

© 2003 The Ontario Review, Inc.

 

Patricia Ferguson, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist, and freelance writer and editor. She is Editor-in-Chief of Apolloslyre.com, and has most recently been published in Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That End Female Bullying. She specializes in women's issues and is a book reviewer for several venues.


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