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Grave of God's Daughter

Grave of God's Daughter

3.0 1
by Brett Ellen Block

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A woman is faced with the past she's tried to put behind her only to find that what transpired in her childhood has never been further away than her own shadow.

The year is 1941. Rooted in the lonely outreaches of the Allegheny Mountains lies the town of Hyde Bend. Its heart: a steel mill; its bones: the tight community of Polish immigrants who inhabit it


A woman is faced with the past she's tried to put behind her only to find that what transpired in her childhood has never been further away than her own shadow.

The year is 1941. Rooted in the lonely outreaches of the Allegheny Mountains lies the town of Hyde Bend. Its heart: a steel mill; its bones: the tight community of Polish immigrants who inhabit it; and its blood: their fierce Catholic faith. But buried in the town's soul is a dangerous secret surrounding the death of a revered priest.

Upon returning to Hyde Bend, a young woman accidentally uncovers the truth behind this crime, which leads to a second murder. The town quickly erupts in fear and finger pointing. The girl is forced to unravel the now-intertwined mysteries and discovers her own family at the center. Now she must confront all she holds sacred if she is to save her family and herself in this story of lost innocence, transgression, faith, and forgiveness.

Editorial Reviews

“After a well-received collection of short stories entitled Destination Known... The Grave of God’s Daughter affirms the literary promise indicated by the author’s shorter work.”
Publishers Weekly
A young girl uncovers dark family secrets in a haunting, evocative first novel by storywriter Block (Destination Known). In 1941, Hyde Bend is a tiny town on a sharp turn in the Allegheny River; its big employers are a steel mill and a pesticide plant, and virtually all its inhabitants are Polish Catholics. Dressing as a boy, Block's young, unnamed narrator delivers meat for the town butcher (she doesn't want anyone to recognize her) in order to raise enough money to buy back the Black Madonna, a family painting that's now gathering dust at the local pawn shop. The mystery of the painting is revealed through Block's detailed portrayal of the troubled relationship between the girl's cold mill worker father and her desperate, beautiful mother, both of whom do their best to avoid one another while raising the narrator and her younger brother, Martin. As a delivery "boy," the girl has a window into the town's other households, which proves especially useful when rumors start circulating about the murder of the town's tyrannical matriarch, Swatka Pani. Block deftly balances the subsequent murder mystery with a rich family and community portrait, revealing a treacherous, insular world that the narrator and her brother must constantly negotiate. As Block's narrator makes her way through the maze of secrets linking her mother and Swatka Pani, she also learns more about her family's tortured dynamic. Block's fluid prose makes the combination especially intoxicating, and her ability to uncover the shadowy, dangerous heart of a wartime mill town is just as impressive. Agent, Jonathan Pecarsky at the William Morris Agency. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A relentlessly grim portrait of a small Pennsylvania mill town in 1940, Block's first novel could well take place during medieval times. The story revolves around a destitute family in Hyde Bend, a Polish enclave along the Allegheny River that is dominated by a steel mill and a chemical factory, with an imposing cathedral in between. The father, an embittered alcoholic, works the night shift at the mill; the mother spends her days cleaning the cathedral and rectory. Their 12-year-old daughter (no one ever refers to her by name) serves as primary caretaker for her seven-year-old brother. She also narrates, giving the work a child's limited scope. The children always seem at the mercy of uncaring adults, including the nuns at school. Yearning for freedom and knowledge, the daughter secretly takes an after-school job delivering packages for the butcher, who provides her with a hat and pants so that she can disguise herself as a boy. This ruse starts a cascade of lies that plague her with guilt, but her encounters allow her to unravel the truth about her community and her background. Recommended, especially for first-novel collections.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First novel about a young girl in a Pennsylvania mill town who grows up prematurely by discovering a family secret laid to rest years before. Drue Heinz winner Block (stories: Destination Known, 2001) takes us to Hyde Bend in the 1940s, a place where all the fathers worked in the steel mill, all the mothers kept house, and everybody knew everybody else's business. The narrator (unnamed), in her early teens, is a bright but sheltered child whose life is centered on the parish church, where she and her younger brother Martin go to school and her mother cooks for the priest. Her father works the nightshift at the mill and isn't home much, and the narrator stands in for him somewhat by looking after her brother and keeping him out of trouble. No one in town has a lot money except for Swatka Pani, the miserly old lady who owns most of Hyde Bend's apartments and has a heart blacker than Allegheny anthracite. When the narrator notices that her mother has begun pawning small items from the house-even her beloved, expensive icon of the Black Madonna-she assumes that her father has been spending the rent money on drink, and she persuades a local butcher to hire her as delivery girl to make ends meet. Anyone who makes deliveries all day will learn a lot about people, of course, and the narrator makes the acquaintance of the creepiest woman in town: a lady whose son grew up to become a priest but committed suicide not long after taking over the local parish. When Swatka Pani is murdered, the mysterious lady tells the narrator who did it-and a few other things beside. Is she a crazy recluse-or the only sane woman in town? Sort of a Polish-American Peyton Place: a touching portrait of childhoodinnocence on a collision course with worldly experience-though it ultimately goes far, far over the edge. Agent: Jonathan Pecarsky/William Morris

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.69(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Grave of God's Daughter

By Block, Brett Ellen

William Morrow & Company

ISBN: 0060525045

Chapter One

I was once told that the distance between a lie and the truth is like the distance between thunder and rain -- the latter is never far behind. But now, even as darkening clouds crest the hillside above the cemetery where my mother will soon be buried, I know it will not rain, not today.

It is almost winter and the grass is brittle underfoot, though it remains a vibrant, almost vehement, shade of green. My mother's simple coffin rests on planks of wood, suspended above her open grave, while a handful of mourners gather along either side. The few elderly men and women stand around solemnly, unspeaking, like people waiting for a bus. I recognize no one, but to them, I am the stranger.

"Are you the daughter?" a voice asks.

It is the priest. His skin looks pale against his long purple vestments and his back is severely hunched beneath his overcoat. It is as if years of ministering to the people of this town have buffeted him into the humble pose, the way a tree can be permanently bent by the wind.

"Yes," I say. "Yes, I am. I'm sorry I--"

"No matter. You're here now," he says, with the firm manner of a doctor rather than the kind or careful demeanor usually ascribed to a priest. That may be the very reason my mother chose him to perform her service.

I imagine her planning this funeral the way one might plan a wedding. Making a guest list, choosing the church, handpicking songs for the organist to play. More important still would have been the location of her burial, Saint Ladislaus cemetery. Set on a low knuckle of the Allegheny Mountains, it is an old community cemetery, full of generations of coal miners and steelworkers who saved what little money they earned to buy marble tombs and detailed headstones, the only memorial to their existence they would ever have. What no one knew when the cemetery was founded was that an underground stream flowed deep beneath the property and, over time, the moving water has buckled the land. The once-smooth sprawl of earth is now rolling with knolls, the grass undulating like sand dunes. All of the delicately carved headstones list and pitch as if riding a heady sea. The sculptures of angels with their eyes upturned to heaven are now tipped and gazing off like bored schoolgirls. Undermined by what secretly pulsed below, this cemetery speaks more about the condition of life than that of death.

"You made it."

I turn and find my brother, Martin, plodding up the dirt path toward the grave site. Were it not for his voice, I wouldn't have known him. His face looks as if all expression has been beaten out of it. His clothes are rumpled like he has just been in a fight and was lucky to have escaped unscathed.

Martin hugs me roughly. In that brief embrace, I can smell the liquor on him.

"I'm glad you're here," he says.

His eyes linger on my face for a moment, a flicker of grateful recollection, then he pulls away, uncomfortable being so close. I know better than to ask him how he's been. It will only invite an argument about how I haven't called or written or visited, about how I have abandoned my old life, this town and him. It is neither the time nor the place for a conversation about my failings. To spare him the silence, I ask softly, "Who are these people?"

"Couldn't say for sure. All from the church, I s'pose."

We are my mother's only living relatives, the only remnants of her family.

"Priest's about to start," Martin says, ending the conversation before either one of us can say something that might make us feel more than we have to.

I approach my mother's coffin and Martin positions himself at my side, though he is more in front of me than anything else. There is a rip in his jacket that starts at the shoulder and carves down over the ribs, a jagged gash that makes it seem as if my brother has been stabbed in the back. The long, fraying tear is a reminder of why I am here and why I left.

What I know about my brother's life now is scant, almost cryptic, like the bottom of a page torn out of a long, inscrutable book. He hasn't worked in years and has never married. For him, home is a room in a boardinghouse and the only regular thing about his life is the welfare checks he receives monthly in the mail. Decades of heavy drinking have taken their toll. It is as though the liquor has literally diluted my brother's blood, leaving his spirit limp, like a bedsheet on a clothesline in a gale. He is not the person I once knew nor, I doubt, will he ever be again.

The priest clears his throat and bows his head ceremoniously. Martin drops his eyes, then buries his hands in his pockets, hiding them from the chill of the rising wind. It appears to be an effort for him to stand straight. I can't be sure if he is drunk or if it is true sorrow that has rendered him unsteady. When he was a child, my brother was precocious, eager, resolute. He was the child I would have liked to be. But since that one spring in our childhood, when everything in our small world unhinged itself from what we knew it to be, my brother has never been the same. From then on, Martin was a ship set adrift, never able to maintain course. Years later, his drinking served only to snap the few sails he had onboard. I fear that with my mother's death Martin's ship will run aground and become hopelessly moored on shore, never to set sail again. It is a fear that stings my heart ...


Excerpted from The Grave of God's Daughter by Block, Brett Ellen Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Brett Ellen Block received her undergraduate degree in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She went on to earn graduate degrees at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of East Anglia's Fiction Writing Program in England. She won the Drue Heinz Literary Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Destination Known, and is a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. She is also the author of The Grave of God's Daughter. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Grave of God's Daughter 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not often can one describe a book in one word, yet here it is possible! Superb!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was excited to read this book but I was soon disapointed. The story drags and the repetitiveness of the family's interactions gets to be too much. The end was predictable and the last chapter was added almost as if it was an after-thought, a short blurp to wrap up loose ends. The entire story dragged and then boom-boom-boom all the secrets were 'revealed' within one short paragraph. I appreciated the description and imagery but the story wasn't as entrancing as I'd thought it was going to be. I would, however, read future pieces by this author because I feel she has the potential to grow as an author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was not one that I particularly fancied. After hearing my girlfreind rave about it last week I decided to pick it up and have a browse through. I was soon transfixed by the characters, the dismal surroundings and the outcome. I would reccomend this book to anyone out there, just waiting for more from this author.