Eric K. Anderson reviews JCO’s novel The Sacrifice in Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, and notes the references back to a much earlier novel.
This new novel has a natural predecessor in Oates’s National Book Award-winning novel them (1969). In this earlier novel the struggles of a lower middle class family are seen as running parallel to and becoming entangled with the 1967 Detroit race riots. Even in her preface for them there is an understanding of how specific incidents of racial conflict cannot be viewed only in isolation but are a part of an inherited opposition between social groups. Oates noted: “the genesis of these specific acts of violence lay far in the past and were certainly not limited to one troubled city.” The Sacrifice directly references this time period when Sybilla’s mother refuses to cooperate with the police in the investigation of her daughter’s assault: “Ednetta was remembering the martial law days and nights of August 1967 when SWAT teams stormed Red Rock houses in a hail of bullets or threw tear gas containers or firebombs into dwellings like this in a pretext of ‘neutralizing’ sniper fire.”
Near the beginning of the novel it’s cryptically written that “racism is an evil except when it benefits us.” This italicised “us” is the collective group in diametric opposition to “them.” It’s the creation of an artificial division out of self-interest whereby one person’s life is believed to matter more than another’s.