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The Sacrifice: a Book Review

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.

The Sacrifice a Novel

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.



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(26) Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. Since I am a bookseller, it is always good to hear reviews from other people. This isn’t something I normally read, so it is nice to hear from someone who has.

    1. Stacey says:

      Glad to be of help 🙂 I’d love to hear about books you do enjoy. You can read a lot of other book reviews of mine as part of my book club.

  2. Oh my word. What a powerful book! I am adding it to my to read list!

    1. Stacey says:

      Enjoy! Let me know what you think! Great conversation points for sure.

  3. I always think that if a book or movie character makes you that uncomfortable, it is doing it’s job. Those are really hard but important questions you asked yourself. They’re too heavy for me to give you an answer, but I love that it made you think!!! I need to find a book that does that for me.

    1. Stacey says:

      Yes, so many questions about our society.

  4. Sounds like a great read and thanks for the review, I’ll have to add it to my list!

    1. Stacey says:

      You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy it!

  5. I enjoyed your review and you reintroduced this author to me.
    I tend to gravitate to light reads but I will be looking into this book.

    1. Stacey says:

      Joyce Carol Oats writes a lot and I have whipped through some of her other books. This one not so much. It was a great read, but a heavy read for sure.

  6. Donna says:

    This sounds like such an interesting read. I don’t think its one I could handle emotionally though – pre-kids it would have been right up my alley, but these days I can’t read anything too emotional like this.

    1. Stacey says:

      One friend in our book club did quit reading it after the first chapter. And I admit, the first chapter scared me – but then it evolved into so much more.

  7. I really wish I had more time to read, since I do enjoy suspense stories. I mean, I can only imagine the suspense around the story of a missing girl! Thanks for sharing this review–super thorough!

    1. Stacey says:

      Yes, it was suspenseful. Sybilla is found pretty quick into the story – but uncovering the truth of what happened and all the lives that are involved adds to the suspense and deep thinking.

  8. I love a book that can really make you face feelings and beliefs that you may not otherwise face. You should read some Jodi Picoult books; they’re heart wrenching and definitely eye-opening!

    1. Stacey says:

      Yes, I have read a couple of Jodi Picoult’s books – they are good! Two of my girls really like her books as well.

  9. Seems like a lovely summer reading. Something different than my usual summer reads.

    1. Stacey says:

      Oh, I’m not sure I would call it lovely. There was a whole lot of ugliness in this novel. But for sure – it was thought provoking.

  10. Sounds like a great book. I like Joyce Carol Oates!

    1. Stacey says:

      I have heard that she has a new book out – but I don’t even know the title right now. My local bookstore told me one was coming in May – I think. So it should be here 🙂

  11. We are always looking for new books for our book club so I’ll have to suggest this one as one of our future reads. I enjoy a mix of books that are for pleasure and books that just make you think!

    1. Stacey says:

      This is one of those that make you think! If you look through my book reviews you will see many of the books that I have read as part of my book club. I’d love to hear what your group is reading!

  12. I wish I had more time to read books. This sounds like a great book.

    1. Stacey says:

      It is time to hard time! I totally agree with that.

  13. This doesn’t around like a book I would have instinctively picked up to read but your review had me intrigued. Will have to see if there is a Kobo copy available.

    1. Stacey says:

      I originally picked it up because I love the writing style of Joyce Carol Oates, but I had no idea what to expect. It was a hard read especially the first half. It was also a very thought provoking novel. I’m glad that I read it.

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