A Haunting Tale of Survival: An immigrant's daughter strives to meld the pieces of her fractured life

This review of The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, $26.95) was published in the Chicago Tribune on June 2, 2007.

By Joanne V. Creighton

Set in the seedy backcountry world of upper New York State, site of much of her most resonant fiction, Joyce Carol Oates' powerful new novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter, chronicles the story of Rebecca, the youngest child of Anna and Jacob Schwart, a cultured immigrant family who fled Nazi Germany for life in America.

Although he had been a teacher at a prestigious boys school, her father, out of desperation and necessity, takes a miserable job as a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker, made all the worse by the cruel harassment of schoolboys:

"Their shouts wayward and capricious and seemingly brainless as the raucous cries of crows in the tall oaks at the rear of the cemetery.

"Gravedigger! Kraut! Nazi! Jew!"

Progressively weighted down by the social ostracism, debilitating poverty and downward trajectory of their lives, the couple's two foul-mouthed, dull-witted sons flee. Anna, who had once loved classical music, becomes increasingly depressed, ill and withdrawn; and Jacob sinks further and further into "fury and despair, anxiety and sodden alcoholic depression." Finally, in a horrific act of violence witnessed by his 13-year-old daughter, he obliterates their world by shooting to death his wife and himself, but sparing Rebecca saying:

"'You--you are born here. They will not hurt you.'"

And so begins Rebecca's journey of survival and improvised self-creation, haunted as she is by shards of her past--snippets of information on the whereabouts of her older brothers and relatives in Germany, and most especially echoes of her father's caustic sayings and omnipresent reminders of her mother's fear of male violence.

Oates dedicates the book to her own grandmother, "Blanche Morgenstern, the 'gravedigger's daughter,'" and indeed, the outlines of Rebecca's life story roughly parallel that of Oates' paternal grandmother, whose Jewish father, a gravedigger by trade, brutally wounded her mother before committing suicide. Oates has marveled at the resilient spirit of her grandmother, who triumphed over the terrible violence of her early life to become a loving and nurturing mother and grandmother, and so, too, does Rebecca endure and prevail against the daunting hardships of her life and develop into a person of strength and character

Rebecca's successive displacements begin when she is taken in by her teacher, but she cannot adjust to this new life. She listens with her father's bitter skepticism to the promises of Miss Lutter's Christian faith, knowing that she doesn't fit in, because "what Jacob Schwart had done surrounded her like a halo. Everywhere Rebecca went, this halo followed. It was invisible to her but very visible to others. It gave off an odor as of smoldering rubber at the town dump."

When Rebecca turns 16 she runs away, supporting herself as a chambermaid in a hotel. Cheerful, grateful to have a job, she takes pride in her work, tidying up ("I can do this"). But at the same time she knows the contempt her father would feel:

"Chamber-maid! Cleaning up after swine.

"My daughter."

Rebecca is saved from imminent sexual abuse from a hotel patron by Niles Tignor, who beats up the predator, and so begins a relationship with him that would seem to promise what Rebecca craves: normality and stability. They get married--or so at least it seems--and have a child. But Tignor, a traveling beer salesman, is far from reliable, stable, or trustworthy, something Rebecca instinctively knows but tries to suppress:

"Rebecca assessed the man who was her lover and would be her husband: ruddy-faced, sensual, this man who'd seduced her and whose wish it was to break her, to use and discard her as if she were of no more consequence than a tissue: she saw him, in that instant exposed, naked. Beneath Tignor's good-natured gregariousness was a ghastly nullity, chaos. His soul was a deep stone well nearly emptied of water, its rock sides steep, treacherous.

"Rebecca shuddered, knowing."

She closes her eyes to this knowledge, believing "she was strong enough to save him, as she had not been strong enough to save Jacob Schwart." Only later does she fully realize their marriage was a sham ceremony and that this man, when drunk, has disturbingly familiar inclinations toward violence and abuse. One evening after he brutally beats her, she runs away with her son. Changing their names to Hazel and Zack Jones, they begin a life of "keeping-going," inexorably moving from one town to the next, ready to flee at any sign of the mad, violent Tignor.

Zack is a sensitive child with innate musical ability, inherited no doubt from his lost grandmother. His mother--an attractive woman with a cheerful disposition, willingness to work hard and cunning resourcefulness about making connections--keeps her eyes open for opportunity. For example, she takes a job in a music store, which leads to piano lessons for Zack. Later she becomes friendly with a jazz musician from a wealthy family who becomes a benefactor for Zack while assuming an important role in his mother's life as well, helping to distance them from her impoverished origins.

Although their lives take a more-settled and promising turn, it is not so easy to traverse class and culture, family and identity. Hazel, with an ever-present awareness of her impostor status, remains haunted by the past and her father's bitter commentary. She longs for a connection to her history and her family.

In the epilogue, 62-year-old Rebecca sends persistent and repeated letters to her cousin, professor Freyda Morgenstern, who eerily resembles her in age and appearance. As a child she had hoped and expected to meet this cousin, but her family, after hearing that these relatives had been turned away by immigration officials in New York Harbor, thought they were lost to the Holocaust.

But Freyda not only survived, she became a distinguished professor of anthropology and author of a celebrated Holocaust memoir, Back From the Dead: A Girlhood. The hardened professor, having closed herself off from family and feeling, initially rebuffs the overtures of her cousin, but at the end of the novel her reserves are wearing down, and rapprochement is tantalizingly possible.

The Gravedigger's Daughter is unquestionably one of Oates' finest novels, rendered in taut, vivid language, with an emotional power some of her novels lack. Rebecca has an appealing robustness of spirit, a fundamental integrity, a tenacious will. Despite dauntingly difficult circumstances, she emerges with a sense of agency: She makes a credible life for herself and her son. Her restless need to put together the pieces of her fractured life is still at work as she sits in her Florida retirement home at the end of the novel.

The Gravedigger's Daughter echoes patterns, themes and characters from many of Oates' novels, especially those that detail the daughter's journey to selfhood in a world rife with male violence and abuse, such as them (1969), Childwold (1976), You Must Remember This (1987), We Were the Mulvaneys (1996), Blonde (2000) and Missing Mom (2005). It most closely resembles Marya: A Life (1986), which draws its inspiration from the maternal, rather than paternal, side of Oates' personal inheritance: The character of Marya, Oates claims, is drawn from a conflation of the lives of her mother and herself.

Perhaps more than any other major contemporary writer, Oates is aware of the fraught dynamics of identity in "self-made" American lives, including the tenacious bonds of family and personal history amid the dislocations effected by education, changes in socio-economic status and larger social, cultural and historical forces. She honors her own complex heritage, and that of all Americans, in her extraordinary fiction.

Joanne V. Creighton, president and professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, has written two books on Joyce Carol Oates.