The Gravedigger's Daughter

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9780061236822: The Gravedigger's Daughter

In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very "American"—triumph. "You are born here, they will not hurt you"—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.

In The Gravedigger's Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.

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About the Author:

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. Her most recent novel is A Book of American Martyrs. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Brian Hall

In the final lines of Joyce Carol Oates's big new novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter, a cousin writes to a cousin, "Yet I think I should come to Lake Worth, to see you. Should I?" The blank pages that follow reverberate not only with silence and loss but also -- and this is Oates's peculiar magic -- with disbelief on the part of the reader that the words could stop, that the question could go unanswered. For Oates often gives the impression, as she does so magnificently here, that she could go on forever. Or that in fact she does go on, as she was already going before the opening words, only those pages don't happen to be printed in this book.

For many novelists, quantity is damaging to quality, but Oates's power springs directly from her prodigality. Her genius -- the only word for the alarming thing that so evidently possesses her -- happens to be a giant. And the reader's intimation that this huge-handed, league-striding, voracious monster is somehow speaking, whispering, howling through her is what gives to her writing the illusion that it's all real, that anything messy, maladroit or unsatisfactory in her books is not a fault in her shaping, but a reflection of the faulty world.

This kind of genius usually has a locus, and for Oates it's the gritty, laboring, underfed, inbred backwaters of upstate New York. She has returned there again and again. This time she's fixed her gaze on a family of immigrants who flee Nazi Germany in 1936 to fetch up in a small town somewhere south of Niagara Falls. They are not Jews, insists the father, Jacob Schwart, and he'll repeat it as often as necessary. As for the word itself -- "Jew" -- he instructs his children, with a hard slap in the face, "Never say it." The past is dead.

Unfortunately, the Schwart family has more or less died with it. Aptly, they live in a cemetery, where Jacob works as the caretaker. In Germany he was a math teacher and a skilled pressman, but in America, supposed land of second chances, he climbs daily out of the grave he's just dug like some undead creature with a frozen, embittered will. His wife, Anna, is a half-mad ghost haunting the damp stone cottage by the cemetery gate. The very water the family drinks from the well is clouded with the fluids, the spirits, of the dead.

The older son, Herschel, a lout who loses his German without ever quite gaining English, flees town after committing a crime. The younger son, August, walks away forever after suffering one too many cruelties from his father. Neither of them utters a word of parting to their only sister, the young Rebecca, the gravedigger's daughter, whose story this is. They've learned their lesson: "Never say it." The past is dead, or will be as soon as you strangle it.

It's a lesson Rebecca learns as well, and she will act on it more than once in the four decades of her life that this novel covers. Oates understands the shame that survivors carry with them, and the lacunae in their stories that are fenced off by that shame. Jacob's shame, and Anna's horror, is the unnamed betrayal he committed to enable his family to escape Germany. Rebecca's shame is Jacob and Anna, their marriage blighted by that original act, which liberated their bodies and imprisoned their souls. Rebecca's defenses are silence and invisibility. The only game she ever played with her father, the only way in which he made her happy, was when she followed him in the cemetery as a very young girl and he pretended not to see her. Her only treasured childhood possession is a dictionary won in a spelling bee that she keeps hidden, unopened and mildewing, under her bed. Her name on the presentation label is misspelled.

No matter. She will change her name, and change it again. She will flee her first home when it explodes in violence, flee a second without saying goodbye to the guardian who loves her, and flee a third when male violence comes crashing back into her life. She will rename herself after a dead woman and discover that when she's acting from behind that pale smiling mask, people find her more alive than they ever found Rebecca Schwart. She will rename her young son after a disembodied voice in the night (a radio DJ) and live to see him become more substantial than his namesake. She will discover that when you kill the past, you free it to haunt you.

This is neither a depressing story nor an uplifting one. Oates succeeds here, as she often does, in making such judgments feel simple-minded. What it all seems is true and therefore moving and somewhat terrible, but in an exhilarating way. Every aspect of the ungainly plot feels right, including its ungainliness. Resolutions fail to arrive; lost people fail to return. Flowing through and past it all, surfacing for these 600 pages, is Oates's turbulent, cross-currented prose, with its hot upwellings and icy eddies. It's the opposite of lapidary, and has the disadvantage of being impossible to quote effectively in a brief review, but for the enthralled reader, Oates's water will eventually have its proverbial way with other writers' stone.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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