Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

by Joyce Carol Oates
Dutton/a William Abrahams book, 328 pp., $21.00

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates; drawing by David Levine

Like Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, or Catcher in the Rye, many enduring novels not intended for adolescents eventually find their way onto junior high school reading lists. That bright period when we are ourselves the hero, lost in the tale, enraptured and transported, remains for most of us a memory of ideal reading when we identify with the heroes and heroines of books, and absorb both the story and its covert lessons in a way we eventually lose the ability to do.

A surprising number of novels, like the ones mentioned above, and like Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, Foxfire, have adolescents as heroes. Young people, and perhaps people of any age, like stories in which a youthful protagonist acts successfully and independently against adult authority, but there are few enough stories in which the rebellious young person is female. This perhaps explains the enduring popularity of Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women. Well-meaning, book-buying parents have doubtless always believed that it is from such books that girls learn—let us say from Beth and Jo—the “womanly” values of sharing, sacrifice and courage, cooperation, and cheerfulness (while boys might learn bravery or protective behavior from the Hardy boys or Tom Sawyer, or even Billy Bathgate). But of course girls have really loved Alcott’s Jo (or Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet) because she is not particularly “good,” and refuses to fit in with prescriptions for female behavior,1 any more than the Foxfire girls do in Oates’s novel, which is subtitled Confessions of a Girl Gang. You could say that Foxfire is a girls’ book, in that it picks up on and dramatizes the secret aspirations, fears, and resentments of females, and you would also note that it has this in common with some very great works of literature, like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice.

The history of the Foxfire gang is recounted in adulthood by one of its members, Maddy, looking back at her journals of a time when, between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, she was banded together with other girls in a poor community in upstate New York, in a sisterhood dedicated to redressing injustices and indignities inflicted on them by men and poverty, forces they accurately perceive will blight their lives. These themes are announced on page six, in their hostile reaction to a congressman who has come to speak in their school assembly,

a fullback on the football team president of his senior class Class of’ 33 so proud such an honor American way of life free enterprise blah blah those of us who served our country in the War this God-ordained sovereign nation….

As he enumerates precisely the structures that will exclude them, “we so resented that asshole up there talking talking talking taking up the entire assembly expecting us to believe there isn’t a special creation of God, or of…

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