How appropriate that the Ontario town of Milton is thus named. The devout Christian John Milton was one of the finest and most significant authors and poets ever to have lived. From the author of Paradise Lost to Joyce Carol Oates. The latter is the author of, amongst other works, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I believe that Oates is little more than an over-valued American literary fashion statement, but that is not the point. We are free to read or not to read as we see fit. But it is strange that a school board (Halton Region's) would impose the book on sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds at Milton District High School.
The novel is a tired fantasy based on the usual sixties-induced sexual ambiguity and rebel envy. It concerns a teenage gang of girls who kidnap, rape, and murder their way through the United States and then flee to Canada where they live a life of freedom and happiness. Illegal and perverse sex, racism, and voyeuristic violence infect the work from start to finish. We read of sex between teenagers and children, between teachers and children, between family members, between five girls and an uncle, between so-called animal men and a chained dwarf.
The following represents a random glance at the book. (The dashes are mine.) Page 12, "f-ers and arseholes". Page 48 , "N-r lips," and "I eat pussy." Page 49, "N-r lips" and "drunk puke". Page 100, a pregnant woman is stabbed to death by her husband and a six-year-old girl's vagina is slashed with a razor. Page 112, "Arsehole" and "F- off." Page 141, "Stale menstrual blood", "F-", "N-r love", "Sh-", "C-". Page 142, "Hot sh- n-r love", Page 202, a woman is gang-raped, like a "she-goat exposing the vulva". Page 224, "You are superior to Negroes anywhere. So f- you. F- you". Page 246, "I'll tear your little c- open." Page 284, "Jew lover".
The f-word is used countless times, racist taunts fill much of the book and virtually every page contains foul language and degrading depictions of women, men, and members of various ethnic minorities. As to scatological attacks on capitalism, Christianity, Western society, it goes beyond saying that these are legion, vulgar, and crass.
With libraries of constructively challenging, clever, amusing, provocative, and timeless books available, why then did a school board choose such a work to give to teenagers at a school in a medium-sized town an hour outside Toronto? The question certainly intrigued the parents of the pupils of Milton, who assembled a massive petition against the book and wrote innumerable letters of complaint to the principal, to the superintendent, to councillors, and to members of the provincial cabinet.
Their argument, and mine, is that while a school is independent and partly autonomous it must not fly deliberately in the face of community standards, particularly when the book in question has little critical pedigree to support it. Genius is allowed to use foul language, perhaps even sexual violence. But no great book would or could use only foul language or sexual violence because this would mean it was not great. When such material is used gratuitously and simply to titillate the unstable, it is nothing but pornography.
Nor does Joyce Carol Oates imply any moral message condemning rape, torture, and murder, which might just be of a certain importance to a group of vulnerable and impressionable teenagers. Shakespeare has a character blinded by an enemy's fingers, slowly and agonizingly. But the Stratford boy does not approve of it or rely on it for his fame. So different from the Yank girl.
When the parents, community leaders, politicians, and churchmen and churchwomen of Milton complained about Foxfire, they were treated with a disdain that we have come to expect from the elites who seem so fond of this type of writing. They dismissed the complaints and refused to listen to the very people who were employing them, the parents. It is relevant, and sad, that while social engineers and certain teachers are allowed to smash a child, they are never around when the parents have to pick up the pieces.
One of the people who strongly endorsed, approved of, and defended Foxfire was the Halton Board of Education superintendent of education services, Graeme John Barrett. Oddly enough, Mr. Barrett was arrested in June and charged in an undercover police operation into illegal sexual activities in Hamilton's Royal Botanical Gardens. Later the charges of sexual assault were dropped against Barrett and a dozen other men after they agreed not to go to the park again and made a charitable donation. Mr. Barrett had, of course, read Foxfire.