On the surface, The Sacrifice, by Joyce Carol Oates is the story if a young black girl and her mother. The novel starts with Ednetta Frye wandering the streets of her neighborhood showing everyone a photo of her daughter. She then implores of them, have you seen my “S’b’lla?” Ednetta’s daughter has been missing now for a couple of days and she is frantic to find her.
Sybilla Frye, a fifteen year old, is then found one morning when her whimpering cries are heard coming from an old abandoned warehouse. A schoolteacher finds Sybilla lying amongst filth and debris caked in blood, smeared with feces, and the words “Nigra Bitch Ku Klux Klann” scribbled on her belly in black sharpie. She is beaten, bruised, and bloodied. Taken to the hospital Sybilla is barely speaking, barely moving, and then she tells the authorities that white cops – maybe six of them – did it.
This story loosely mirrors the Tawana Brawley’s real life story of 1987. This is fiction based on news. Joyce Carol Oats weaves together many layers including a reverend and lawyer working on Sybilla’s behalf. I saw early on where the story was going, but the plot line of The Sacrifice is really only just the beginning. There is so much more.
I read this book along with my book club. It was a hard book for me to read – while it is short, it took me longer than normal to get through it. One, because I did not particularly like how many of the characters were being portrayed – that bothered me; and two, because the plot dealt with so many issues. Hard issues. This story brought forward many deep race questions that unfortunately are still simmering today in many communities. Because of these reasons, this book made an excellent book club read. This story and the characters living with in it, led us to have a long and deep conversation on race, discrimination, poverty, greed, power, and fear.
My book club is made up of a dozen middle and upper-middle class white women consisting of both career-focused and stay-at-home moms. In reading this book through our lenses, it had us thinking about choices, the choices we make and the choices Ednetta Frye made. Poverty, oppression, fear, and post-traumatic stress all impact your ability to make choices. All of this is present in the novel’s setting – a fictionalized city called Pascayne. In Pascayne , N.J., there is a real and deep-seated hatred and distrust (based on the community’s history) and fear of the cops. The story was set in 1988, in an impoverished African American neighborhood living in the shadows of their 1968 race riots complete with sanctioned police sniper shooting of anyone believed to be causing havoc. During this time many innocent African Americans people lost their lives, including Lysander, the brother of Anis Frye (Sybilla’s step-father). Additionally, years earlier when Anis was 12, he watched his friend be electrocuted at the hands of the cops. All of this adds a layer of rage and anger to the character of Anis.
Like I said, this was a hard book to read. With all of the black and white race issues that are being dealt with in our society today, it is timely. It makes one wonder; really how far have we come? How do cycles get broken? Cycles of poverty, cycles of discrimination, cycles of oppression. The ending of the story gives no real answers; the reader is left with ambiguity. In a telling plot move, Oates ends the story in the middle of a littered dead-end street closed off by a rusted chain link fence.
I love the writing of Joyce Carol Oates; she is a consummate storyteller. She continues to weave words making the reader wonder and think from the first page until the very last. This story made me uncomfortable – and maybe that was the point.