Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
(1993), a feminist young adult novel, is about a US girl gang dedicated to exacting revenge on a patriarchal world. The book was well received for its complex characters, passion, and honest portrayal of gang mentality. Oates, who also writes as Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. Writing for both teenagers and adults, she’s the recipient of numerous literary awards and nominations.Foxfire
is narrated by Madeleine “Maddy” Wirtz. Now a fifty-year-old woman, she used to be a member of a notorious girl gang. She narrates the novel from the perspective of a woman looking back at her life and the crimes she committed in the name of a gang. Her job now as an astronomer’s assistant is far removed from her rebellious teenage years.
Sexually assaulted by her uncle as a teenager, this experience shapes Maddy’s actions and her attitude towards men and authority figures. All the girls in the novel have suffered abuse or neglect in some form and don’t have strong adult mentors or support networks to turn to.
The book is set in 1950s Upstate New York in a local high school. Five teenage girls, brought together by their circumstances, rage against the injustices they endure every day. The leader of the group, Margaret “Legs” Sadovsky, has very clear ideas about how life should be for girls. She believes that women of all ages must unite to take what they deserve.
The other members of the gang want to be part of a movement as much as anything else. The other three girls are Betty “Goldie” Siegfried, Loretta “Lana” Maguire, and Elizabeth “Rita” O’Hagan. The gang hierarchy is simple—Legs tells them all what she wants them to do, and they support her.
On January 1, 1953, Legs decides they need a formal initiation ritual and a proper gang name. She calls the group “Foxfire.” Its symbol will be a red flame. All five girls must get this flame tattooed onto their body in secret or else they can’t be part of the gang. The girls don’t argue and let her tattoo them.
Legs now has grand ideas for Foxfire. She listens to each of the girls, in turn, finding out which men or boys have been horrible to them. The girls talk about things happening in school or at home, including sexual assault. They don’t know that Legs only asks about their lives because she’s looking for potential targets.
One day, the gang finds out that a teacher, Mr. Buttinger, groped Rita’s breasts after class. Legs decides that he should be taught a lesson, and they vandalize his car. Once the whole school finds out what Mr. Buttinger did, he leaves the school and retires from teaching. Legs and the girls think this is a just punishment. However, Legs is only getting started.
The girls find out about the way Maddy’s uncle abuses her. Although vandalism worked the last time, Legs doesn’t think this is a harsh enough punishment for Mr. Wirtz. Instead, she convinces the girls to beat him up. Maddy and the gang attack Mr. Wirtz, and he sustains noticeable injuries. Maddy worries that Foxfire might be getting out of control, though she is happy she got revenge on her uncle.
Legs, conscious that Foxfire is only known for violent or negative acts, encourages the girls to get involved with charity. She decides they should take part in protests to save local shops and animals, and she wants them to donate to homeless people. Now that the gang is attracting positive attention, other girls want to be like them.
Although many girls hope to join Foxfire, Legs insists that membership should be exclusive or else it will get out of hand. Maddy suspects that Legs is worried that someone else might usurp her leadership, but she keeps her mouth shut. Legs is becoming increasingly erratic, and it doesn’t seem wise to provoke her.
Maddy’s fears about Legs’ erratic behavior are proven right. Legs encourages the girls to steal a car and they go on a joyride. When the police catch them, Legs is sent to a juvenile detention facility, and the other girls are put on probation. This is the beginning of the end for Foxfire because it gives the girls some distance from Legs and her overbearing influence.
While Legs is detained, the other girls go about their lives. They’re still part of a gang but it’s far more peaceful. However, Legs gets out, wanting to pick up where things left off. She rents a house and the girls all move in. At first, they think it’s wonderful having freedom from adults telling them what to do. When reality sets in, and they can’t pay the rent or support themselves, tensions rise again.
Legs comes up with her boldest plan yet—kidnapping a rich man to get money. The girls reluctantly go along with the plan, because they’re afraid of her, but the plan falls apart. Legs disappears, and the other girls go their separate ways. It’s unclear whether they ever see each other again. Now that she’s an older woman, Maddy wants to get the gang’s deeds off her chest for good.