"Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang," Joyce Carol Oates

Pros: Unusual and honest
Cons: Unusual; not for everyone
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 7/4/2001

Never never tell, Maddy-Monkey, they warned me, it’s Death if you tell any of Them but now after so many years I am going to tell, for who’s to stop me?

Thus reads the opening sentence of “Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang.” The story of this unusual group of teenage girls is told from the point of view of Madeleine Faith Wirtz, also known as Maddy, Maddy-Monkey, and Killer (for her razor tongue), all grown up now.

This is the first Joyce Carol Oates book that I’ve read, the first of several sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be explored. It’s a remarkably honest book. The girls who come together in their “outlaw gang” are strong, but not always strong enough. They have dreams and ambitions, but they often fall short of them. They do good things for each other, but they also do mean, hurtful things. In short, they’re human beings.

It can be a hard book to read – to see people fall short of what they could be. To see people go through terrible times (there are scenes in here of attempted molestation and more). The girls of FOXFIRE did some amazing things, helping women to get out of abusive situations, protecting their “sisters.” They also got themselves into stupid scrapes, stealing a car and crashing it, resulting in one of them getting sent off to a reformatory.

Youth & Exuberance

You can feel the youth of the characters. It shows through in the run-on sentences, the ALL CAPITALS exuberance of their FOXFIRE BURNS & BURNS slogans, the tendency of the “author” character to switch back and forth between “I” and the third person. Joyce Carol Oates breaks so many rules, does so many things writers usually can’t get away with, and somehow it works. It ends up simply making the characters seem juvenile, not the author.

It found it still grated on my nerves after a while, however. These methods were used to good effect, but that doesn’t make them easy to read.

The Plot Arc

It’s a plot arc that we’ve seen again and again in so many places: the rise of a loose group of people into a tight group of people with some power, followed by their decline, decay and dissolution, the inevitable falling-apart. It’s a very basic arc, used over and over because it’s so effective.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but I’ve seen it just often enough that the inevitable downslide that can’t be checked is starting to depress me. Because you know how it will end, and you know there’s no way to stop it, from very early on in the book. I find I need there to be at least the hope of salvation and redemption somewhere in there or it starts to get to me a little. I’m all for depressing endings, but they need to be at least a little uncertain. It’s hard to read them when they’re set in stone from the very beginning of the book.

Foxfire is a good book. It’s solid. It’s easy to get caught up in the characters’ lives. The “author” character fades in and out of the foreground, allowing us to see her point of view, and yet also see how her presence paled in significance next to certain others in the story. The details of the time period (the 1950s) come through clearly – you’d have to try hard not to see the locale and the characters. My only reservations come from the inevitable downslide, the unending capitals and run-on sentences, and the fact that this isn’t my usual genre of book. I enjoyed reading it, but it didn’t leave me saying “wow!” So if it sounds like an interesting book to you, then I recommend that you pick up a copy.

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