Last week my boss asked me for a book recommendation for her fifteen year old daughter. I read constantly when I was fifteen but there was only one book that came to mind. This book changed my whole life. Maybe if you read it today for the first time as a grown person (or a fifteen year old) it wouldn’t speak to you at all. Maybe you wouldn’t even finish it.
I’ve read it at least five times. Honestly, I think that’s a really conservative estimate.
I have a tattoo because of this book. That’s embarrassing to admit but… might as well get it all out there.
I can’t remember all the details but it goes a little like this: The book is about a group of high school girls in the 1950s from the perspective of one of the girls, “the writer”. These classmates don’t become friends until they band together to stop a teacher from being inappropriate with one of the girls. Then they are bound by their experience and it takes over their lives (as things do in high school). A leader has emerged and they follow her everywhere.
The book was everything. It was one of the first books I had read that wasn’t intended for young adults and wasn’t assigned at school. It was one of the first real pieces of contemporary literature I had ever tried. It was dark and overwhelming with its violent and sexual tension. These were girls my age, in a much more oppressed time, but they were wild and chaotic.
And they belonged to one another. They were a community within themselves. Poor, desperate, and out of control maybe but as I read I felt connected to them. At the time I read Foxfire I think I would have done anything to felt that connected to someone else, to a made up little family.
A woman I worked with gave me the book. Nicole was older, maybe in college or graduated. When you’re in high school you can’t actually grasp how much older other people are. There are grownups and then there’s you. I don’t remember much about her except the moment she handed me the book and I saw it’s pink, black and white cover. She was sitting at the window on one of the tall chairs and she told me I could keep it. Later when I told her how much I loved it, she nodded unsurprised and told me to find some of the author’s other books.
For the next six years I barely read anything else. Joyce Carol Oates is an incredibly prolific writer so there was more than enough material to keep me supplied. She’s written over 50 novels, novellas, over 30 short story collections, plays, books of essays (I took these numbers from a 2010 Wall Street Journal article– there’s more now). Some I don’t care for. We Were the Mulvaneys did not rock my world. I couldn’t finish Middle Age (my mother read it though and said I was just too young to relate).
Others are vivid and their characters are alive to me. The teenage girl in You Must Remember This who has an affair with her uncle. The woman we follow from childhood as she grapples with sexuality in Man Crazy. The man and woman bound by crime in Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart. Marilyn Monroe in Blonde- a constant mystery. Legs from Foxfire- vulnerable and manipulative and violent. There are imprints in my mind of these characters that can never be erased. I can recall scenes from their stories and how they looked to me, even though I haven’t read these books in over five years.
You know when you’re talking about something and you get really excited so you start talk faster or louder? You’re so into whatever you’re talking about that you don’t want anyone to cut you off or maybe you’re not even aware that you’ve been talking for too long now. That’s how I feel about JCO’s writing.
I don’t read Joyce Carol Oates as much as I used to, but looking over the list of novels she’s written brings back the memory of being in a bookstore and gazing over all her books. What one would I try next? I want to read them all over again.
In case you’re wondering I did a quick count and I’ve read 29 novels/novellas/short collections by Joyce Carol Oates. Yes, that seems like a lot to me, too.