Texte de Joyce Carol Oates


« Nina Olshaker had been married for ten years to Sam Olshaker who currently worked the night shift at Parish Plastics, one of the largest factories in the country. They'd moved to Colvin Heights six years before. They had a nine-year-old son Billy and six-year-old Alice and they'd had a younger daughter Sophia who'd died of leukemia in March 1961, at the age of three. " This place poisoned her, Mr. Burnaby. I can't prove it, the doctors won't say so, but I know." Nina's and Sam's families were from the region. Sam had been born in Niagara Falls, where his father worked for Occidental Petroleum; Nina had been born in North Tonawanda where her father had worked for thirty-five years at Tonawanda Steel and had died last summer of emphysema at the age of fifty-four. She said, bitterly, "And Daddy's death, too. Tiny bits of steel in his lungs. He'd cough up blood. He could hardly breathe, at the end. He knew what was causing it, all the men at the steel mill know, they're resigned. The pay is good, that's the catch. And maybe, though they know what's happening to them, they don't exactly believe it. We felt that way with Sophia. She was getting weaker, losing weight, her white blood cells were failing, but we kept praying and always we were thinking she'd be getting better. When Sophia died I wanted an autopsy done on her, I mean I thought I did, until it was explained to me what an autopsy is, and I changed my mind. Now I wonder if I did the right thing? If it was leukemia, just that, like something you inherit in the blood, like the County Health Department told us, or maybe it was something else, too? Some poison here? I can taste it myself. In wet weather like this. But they told us there's nothing, no poison in the air, or in the drinking water, they've done tests. Or so they claim(1). Oh Mr. Burnaby, I'm worried sick about Alice, now. She doesn't gain weight, doesn't have much appetite, I take her for blood tests and she has `fluctuating low white cell-counts'(2) – what's that mean? And Billy gets headaches over at the school, his eyes are sore and he's coughing a lot." […] " I want justice, Mr. Burnaby. I don't want money, I want justice for Sophia. I want Billy and Alice protected from harm. I want whoever is responsible for Sophia's death and for other children sick or dying in this neighbourhood to say they are responsible. I know there is something wrong here. You can smell it, sometimes it burns your eyes and nostrils. In the back yard, in lots of back yards here, there's this strange disgusting black fudge that oozes up like oil, but thicker than oil. I'll show you, it's in our basement. In wet weather it oozes through the walls. You call the city government, you get a secretary or somebody who tells you to wait, and you wait and the line goes dead. You go down there to City Hall and you wait. You can wait for weeks, months. I'd guess you can wait for years if you lived that long. […] I have photographs of all these things, Mr. Burnaby. I have photographs of Sophia, I want you to see. Billy? Billy, come here." A sniffy tow-headed boy had been hanging in the doorway of the living-room, and now came reluctantly forward to meet Mr. Burnaby – "He's a lawyer, Billy. A famous lawyer." Dick winced. Famous! "I want Billy transferred to another school but they refuse to transfer him. Because to give in to one parent(3), they'd have to admit there was something to give in to, and they won't do that. Because then everybody would want their children transferred to a safer school. Because then maybe they'd be `liable'(4) – the school administration, the Board of Education, the mayor? They all protect one another, you can see they're stalling(5) and lying, like at the Health Department, but what can you do, we live here, we just about make our mortgage payments and the car payments and if we have extra medical costs like taking Alice to St. Anne's instead of where they want to send us for tests, at the county medical clinic, all that adds up, we just can't afford it on Sam's salary and if something happens to him, there's the medical insurance at Parish, and the pension, and Sam is worried they could `retaliate'(6) against him, if we cause trouble – is that possible Mr. Burnaby?" He said, "It's possible, Mrs. Olshaker. I'd have to examine your husband's contract, to have an idea." »
Abridged and adapted fromJoyce Carol Oates, The Falls, 2004

Compréhension de l'écrit
Read the whole text.
Draw the following family tree and fill it in with as many details as possible. Use the symbol + when a person is dead and indicate the cause of death when possible.
Choose the correct answer and justify with two quotations.
The family lives in:
a) an industrial area
b) a big city
c) in the country
3. What health problems do some members of the family suffered or suffer from ? Quote from the text.
What is the origin of Sofia's problems ? Justify your answers by quoting from the text.
a) according to the authorities ?
b) according to Nina ?
Say whether the following statements are true or false. Justify your answers by quoting from the text.
a) Nina cannot prove that she is right about the cause of her family's problems.
b) The workers do not know what has caused Nina's father's death.
c) They did not complain because they were resigned and well paid.
d) Nina wants money from the company.
e) Nina thinks the environment they live in is very polluted.
f) The authorities agree that this is true.
g) She wants to hire Dick Burnaby to take Parish Plastics to Court.
h) She needs Dick Burnaby because she got no help from the City government.
Read from "I want Billy transferred […]" to the end
6. How does Nina explain the authorities' reaction ? (5 to 10 words)
7. Why cannot she move to another place ? (5 words)
8. Explain the sentence: "Sam is worried they could retaliate against him, if we caused trouble". (10 to 15 words)
Expression écrite
Choose one of the following tasks (about 250 words).
1. Mr. Burnaby eventually accepts to defend Nina's case. He writes her a letter to explain the reasons why he agrees to help her.
2. Are there causes you would be ready to fight for ? Illustrate your answer with examples.
3. A journalist has come to interview Nina about the environmental and health problems in her region. Write their conversation.
(1)So they claim: that's what they say.
(2)Fluctuating low white cell-counts: not enough white cells.
(3)Give in to one parent: admit that the parent is right.
(4)Liable: responsible by law.
(5)Stalling: gaining time.
(6)Retaliate: get a revenge.


Compréhension de l'écrit
2. The family lives in an industrial area:
  • "Sam Olshaker who currently worked the night shift at Parish Plastics"
  • "his father worked at Occidental Petroleum"
  • "her father had worked […] at Tonawanda Steel"
  • "all the men at the steel mill know"
3. " Sophia […] died of leukemia"
"her father […] died […] of emphysema"
"Alice […] doesn't gain weight, doesn't have much appetite […] has fluctuating low white cell-counts"
"Billy gets headaches […] his eyes are sore and he's coughing a lot"
Sophia's problems were:
a) according to the authorities: "leukemia […] like the County Health Department told us",
b) according to Nina: "This place poisoned her […] the doctors won't say so, but I know", "some poison here? I can taste it myself".
a) True: "I can't prove it".
b) False: "all the men at the steel mill know".
c) True: "they are resigned. The pay is good".
d) False: "I want justice, Mr. Barnaby. I don't want money".
e) True: "I know there is something wrong here. You can smell it, sometimes it burns your eyes and nostrils. In the backyard, in lots of backyards here, there's this strange disgusting black fudge that oozes up like oil, but thicker than oil."
f) False: "they have to admit there was something to give it to, and they won't do that".
g) True: "I want justice, Mr. Barnaby".
h) True: "You call the city hall, you get a secretary or somebody who tells you to wait, and you wait and the line goes dead", "you go down there to City Hall and you wait. You can wait for weeks, months I'd guess you can wait for years if you lived that long."
6. Nina thinks the authorities are not sincere, that they are stalling and lying and that they protect one another.
7. They can't move to another place because they live on a meager income and can't afford to move.
8. Trough this sentence, Nina means that if they sue Parish Plastics, the company could sack Sam.
Expression écrite
Mrs. Nina Olshaker
Colvin Heights
Dear Mrs. Olshaker
I'm writing to you because I have decided to accept to defend you.
When you visited me and explained to me what your problems were I was moved to hear that your young daughter Sophia died of leukemia at the age of three and how unhealthy your two other children are. What you told me about your father and your father-in-law is also so sad. The death toll in your family is important and unbearable considering that these industries take advantage of the situation to make money but do not care much about the health of their workers and of the population who lives around in the area.
I'm all the more convinced as the authorities have a disgusting attitude towards people who try to make the situation better and it seems to me that they take advantage of the situation as well and that there might be a collusion between the city hall and the firms which may even bribe the employees of the Health department. Considering the way they do not react and behave this is a strong feeling I have.
For all these reasons, I do think that the situation is revolting and that your case is worth defending in court.
Looking forward to hearing from you soon,
Sincerely yours,
Mr. Barnaby
2. It is difficult to say if there are causes I could be ready to fight for. I think there are many different situations, for instance to achieve peace security or justice.
It would certainly be to attain objectives which I think are just. If I lived in a dictatorship, I would certainly fight against it for it is unbearable to have heads of states who covet power and fortune, who achieve their own ends at the expense of the others, who cheat or lie to fulfill their ambition and thirst of power.
Unfortunately life is full of people from corrupt politicians to managers of big companies who do not hesitate to put people's lives at risk and may even become murderers jeopardizing people's health to make profits and take advantage of the situation.
We have examples of great men and women who had or have a vision for the future of their country, those who never despair of making a better world and dedicate their lives to the benefit of others like Martin Luther King, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Through these examples who have achieved great things, I would feel ready to fight for causes like the ones they have fought against.
In that case I think it is worth surpassing oneself and achieving great things. That's why I would probably fight people who jockey for a position, discriminate others or try to take advantage of a situation in the vain pursuit of fortune and glory.
3. Journalist: "So Mrs. Olshaker, what is your view on the problem?"
Nina: "I'm totally revolted as nobody does anything about our environmental problem."
Journalist: "Do you really think there is a problem? The Health Authorities say that it is not the case."
Nina: "According to me, the Health Authorities lie: they are corrupt and do not want to do anything as they surely take advantage of the situation. It is impossible to have them on the phone, and you can't even meet them. They turn a blind eye on the environmental problem. I'm quite convinced that they are given money not to interfere with the companies businesses or not to take them to court."
Journalist: "This is a serious accusation Mrs. Olshaker."
Nina: "How can they be so blind and indifferent to people's problems here? When you take into account the number of people who suffer from lethal diseases due to pollution or how employers put their employees lives at risk, there's no denying that they are aware of the problems but do not react on purpose."
Journalist: "What are you going to do against that?"
Nina: "I have met a lawyer who is convinced that it is worth suing the companies who pollute the area and the Health Authorities. As a consequence, we are going to take them to court and prove that there is a collusion between them and have them sentenced for not taking the necessary measures to stop that disgusting and unbearable situation."
Journalist: "Thank you Mrs. Olshaker. I hope you will allow us to follow the trial and that you will help us explain the problem to our readers."