Book Title: Oreo
Author: Fran Ross
Year Published: Originally 1974, reprinted in 2015
Publisher: New Directions
It’s witty, dirty, socially smart and a little bit visionary, but no one’s heard of it. At least until now… Oreo didn’t get a lot of attention when it was first published in 1974 by writer and comedian Fran Ross, but with a brand-new 2015 reprint, hopefully more readers will get their hands it. Oreo tells the story of a girl who has a black mother and a Jewish father. She was born “Christine”, a joke by her mother on her father. Her grandmother gave her the nickname “Oriole” but everyone in the neighborhood thought she was saying “Oreo” so she became known by that name. Oreo in slang usually means someone who’s black on the outside and white on the inside, but in Oreo it usually describes the title character’s smile (“Oreo could do nothing but smile her cookie smile). Oreo is hard to categorize. It deals with serious issues of race and gender, but approaches these topics with a humorous slant and never gets bogged down like a lot of its genre. It’s part literary and part adventure story. It’s about a 14-year-old girl, but it’s probably too risqué for the YA section (although there’s no actual sex in it, there’s a lot of talk about sex). It’s part of the Rabelaisian, picaresque, Greek, and American traditions.
The plot of Oreo follows the Theseus myth, with Oreo in the starring role as Theseus. The Greek Theseus was the son of Aegeus and Poseidon by Aethra. Aegus left shortly after Theseus’s birth to go be king of Athens. Before he departed, he left a sword and a pair of sandals under a rock for Theseus to claim when he came of age. Oreo’s father, Samuel Schwartz, is based on Aegeus, and Oreo goes on a quest to find him. The twist is that this isn’t really a story of establishing paternity – it’s more about Oreo’s quest to find herself through travel and deeds. Sam Schwartz’s unimportance in Oreo’s story is made clear from the way he is introduced in the Dramatis Personae as “just another pretty face.” Once Oreo is old enough to travel on her own, she moves the book’s equivalent of the rock, takes the bed socks and the mezuzah, and hops on a train to New York to track down Samuel and give him a piece of her mind.
Oreo’s journey takes her through Six Labors of Theseus. An old man on the subway (Periphetes) tries to beat her with his cane and she steals it from him to use as her walking stick and primary weapon (which will come in handy when she’s fighting the book’s equivalent of Sciron). Oreo is always prepared to defend herself. The reason for this is a letter she received from her mother, Helen, which told her revelation about the cause of women’s oppression throughout history:
I’ve tried to encompass in my theory all the sociological, mythological, religious, philosophical, muscular, economic, cultural, musical, physical, ethical, intellectual, metaphysical, anthropological, gynecological, historical, hormonal, environmental, judicial, legal, moral, ethnic, governmental, linguisitic, psychological, schizophrenic, glottal, racial, poetic, dental, artistic, military, and urinary considerations from prehistoric times to the present. I have been able to synthesize these considerations into one inescapable formulation: men can knock the shit out of women.
Which is not to say that there aren’t women who can knock the shit out of men, but as a smaller woman, I can understand Helen’s (Oreo’s mom) sentiment. It’s depressing to think about, and it doesn’t match up with feminism’s aim for women to be equal to men, but it’s hard to argue with. Physical strength is less important now in achieving success and social status than it used to be, but physical strength does give a speaker more presence, something to “back up” whatever one says, at least on the subconscious level of the listener.
In response to this nugget of wisdom, Oreo devised a system of self-defense which she called WIT, or the “Way of Interstitial Thrust”. This is basically attacking an opponent’s weak point (please don’t say “for massive damage”). Armed with WIT, Oreo takes on abusers of all kinds, and, like Theseus, gives them back tit for tat. It seems a bit far-fetched, but it’s appealing enough I’ll happily suspended disbelief. Theseus is said to be the inventor of “scientific wrestling”, or a way of fighting in which a weaker opponent could use strategy to beat a stronger one, so it’s all the more fitting. The Theseus structure takes Oreo through a string of progressively more dangerous enemies, and the culminating fight with Cercyon is brilliant and deserving of a place among the best of picaresque scenes.
Along with WIT being a way for Oreo to defend herself, it’s also a metaphor for one of her key traits. Oreo lives in the interstices between black and Jewish, which could mean that she doesn’t fit in with either community, but in this book, it’s not either or neither, it’s both. Oreo passes between the black and Jewish communities with little fuss. She even passes for an adult when she goes into bars to use the bathroom. After crashing a Tay-Sachs benefit and talking with another teen there, she muses gratefully about how the black side of her kept her from getting Tay-Sachs and the Jewish side kept her from being prone to sickle-cell anemia. The reason she can fit so well into both worlds is due to her wit. Ross writes, “She had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.” You have to be a witty person to write a witty character, and Fran Ross had wit for days.
There were only a couple of things I didn’t like about this novel. The first is that it doesn’t make a lot sense without background knowledge about the Theseus myth. Some of the plot turns seemed arbitrary the first time I read it through. I really wish it could have stood on its own better. It seems like it was meant to be a style-first novel, though, and I respect that. Second, I stopped looking up the Yiddish phrases after about the third chapter because they seemed like they were only there to add flavor. None of them were punchlines to a joke and none added any important meaning that you would miss by not looking them up.
Third, and this is only something I noticed after realizing how similar Oreo is to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a lot of the side characters are overly quirky to the point of being twee and contrived. This doesn’t really bother me like it seems to bother other readers, but it does get boring to read because it feels like the characters get buried under tiny, insignificant descriptions. It makes me think of decora fashion, with its layers of plastic accessories.
The major advantage of Oreo over Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that the main character does not fall prey to this like Oskar Schell does. I can’t find anything that says that ELIC is based on the myth of Theseus, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m also a little suspicious of how many things Oreo and ELIC have in common:
- Young, precocious, linguistically gifted protagonists
- Go on a quest to find their fathers
- In New York City
- By looking up names in the phone book and knocking on doors.
- Both children study martial arts and have a second language (Oreo: Yiddish, Oskar: French)
- Both books have lots of overly quirky side characters.
- Both books experiment with form (Oreo doesn’t include pictures, to its credit).
- Both books play with language and aspire to being literary.
It’s not a copyright case, but it is enough to make you do a double-take. Oreo was released 37 years before ELIC, so it may have been an influence on Foer. The books are different enough in subject and tone that it doesn’t really seem like direct plagiarism. ELIC deals with Asperger’s and 9/11, and Oreo tackles the struggles of African American women. The tones of ELIC and Oreo are like mirror images of each other: Oreo is serious on the outside and comedic at heart, ELIC is comedic on the outside and serious in the middle. I don’t know if I could recommend either without reservations, but there were things I liked about both. I liked Oreo for its blunt humor and ELIC for its inventiveness. If you asked me to choose which protagonist is better, though, I don’t think I could do it. Oreo is a stronger heroine but Oskar is more vulnerable and relatable. Let me know in the comments which one you think is better, or if you know any other books about kids searching for their fathers in New York.