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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
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
© 2003 The
Ontario Review, Inc.
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.