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The Gravedigger's Daughter

The Gravedigger's Daughter

3.4 37
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father—a former high school teacher—is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out


Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father—a former high school teacher—is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out into America. Embarking upon an extraordinary odyssey of erotic risk and ingenious self-invention, she seeks renewal, redemption, and peace—on the road to a bittersweet and distinctly “American” triumph.

Editorial Reviews

Brian Hall
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.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

At the beginning of Oates's 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence.

There's plenty of backstory, told in retrospect. Rebecca's parents escape from the Nazis with their two sons in 1936; Rebecca is born in the boat crossing over. When Rebecca is 13, her father, Jacob, a sexton in Milburn, N.Y., kills her mother, Anna, and nearly kills Rebecca, before blowing his own head off. At the time of the footpath crossing, Rebecca is just weeks away from being beaten, almost to death, by her husband, Niles Tignor (a shady traveling beer salesman). She and son Niley flee; she takes the name of the woman for whom she has been recently mistaken and becomes Hazel Jones. Niley, a nine-year-old with a musical gift, becomes Zacharias, "a name from the bible," Rebecca tells people. Rebecca's Hazel navigates American norms as a waitress, salesperson and finally common-law wife of the heir of the Gallagher media fortune, a man in whom she never confides her past.

Oates is our finest novelistic tracker, following the traces of some character's flight from or toward some ultimate violence with forensic precision. There are allusions here to the mythic scouts of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, who explored the same New York territory when it was primeval woods. Many of the passages are a lot like ablown-up photo of a bruise—ugly without seeming to have a point. Yet the traumatic pattern of the hunter and the hunted, unfolded in Rebecca/Hazel's lifelong escape, never cripples Hazel: she is liberated, made crafty, deepened by her ultimately successful flight. Like Theodore Dreiser, Oates wears out objections with her characters, drawn in an explosive vernacular. Everything in this book depends on Oates' ability to bring a woman before the reader who is deeply veiled—whose real name is unknown even to herself—and she does it with epic panache. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Reader Bernadette Dunne captures the mesmerizing pace of Oates's prose in an almost hypnotic rhythm as the novel unwinds in past and present time. The daughter of a family that escaped Nazi Germany only to land in America in a situation well beneath their previous status, Rebecca tells a story of violence, betrayal, secrets, forced silences, and misperceptions. She will suffer the deflected and intentional slurs directed at her father and his new profession, carrying her shame into her unfortunate marriage, her escape, and her uncertainty about her true identity as she attempts to secure a chameleon's invisibility throughout her life. A harsh and demanding book but recommended for libraries whose clientele favor serious fiction.
—Joyce Kessel

Kirkus Reviews
The lingering residue of survivor's guilt and trauma shape a battered woman's life on the run in Oates's latest novel (Black Girl/White Girl, 2006, etc.), which is stuffed with echoes of her earlier fiction. Following a terse "Prologue" in which young wife and mother Rebecca Tignor rejects memories of her harsh immigrant father Jacob Schwart, we observe her fending off a stranger who follows her home from her factory job, addressing her as "Hazel Jones," a name that means nothing to her. Then, in juxtaposed narratives, we learn of her girlhood among a German-American family scarred by the resentment of her father (a teacher and intellectual reduced to working as a cemetery caretaker) and the violence of her older brother, and the life to which she alone escaped after a family tragedy: a hopeful marriage to traveling salesman Niles Tignor, blighted by his violent abuse of Rebecca and their young son "Niley." Escaping again, Rebecca reinvents herself (as "Hazel Jones," also renaming Niley "Zacharias"), moves around upstate New York for years and finds love with a decent older man (Chet Gallagher), who also nurtures "Zacharias's" precocious musical gift-until the pull of her own life brings Rebecca/Hazel to obsession with the nihilistic "wisdom" preached by her doubtless insane father. The arc thus traced virtually repeats that of Oates's 1967 novel A Garden of Earthly Delights (itself recently republished, in substantially rewritten form), and circumstantial details recall similar material in such novels as The Assassins (1975) and Angel of Light (1981). Furthermore, the novel ends with an exchange of letters which incorporates a short story published in her recent collection High Lonesome(2006). The resulting patchwork is an amalgam of tedious rehashing and compelling drama, whose best feature is Oates's painstaking portrayal of a woman so persistently exploited and betrayed that she loses all sense of who she actually is. A truly representative sampling of this unpredictable author's grind-it-out strengths and mind-boggling weaknesses.

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The Gravedigger's Daughter

Chapter One

Chautauqua Falls, New York

One afternoon in September 1959 a young woman factory worker was walking home on the towpath of the Erie Barge Canal, east of the small city of Chautauqua Falls, when she began to notice that she was being followed, at a distance of about thirty feet, by a man in a panama hat.

A panama hat! And strange light-colored clothes, of a kind not commonly seen in Chautauqua Falls.

The young woman's name was Rebecca Tignor. She was married, her husband's name Tignor was one of which she was terribly vain.


So in love, and so childish in her vanity, though not a girl any longer, a married woman a mother. Still she uttered "Tignor" a dozen times a day.

Thinking now as she began to walk faster He better not be following me, Tignor won't like it.

To discourage the man in the panama hat from wishing to catch up with her and talk to her as men sometimes, not often but sometimes, did, Rebecca dug the heels of her work shoes into the towpath, gracelessly. She was nerved-up anyway, irritable as a horse tormented by flies.

She'd almost smashed her hand in a press, that day. God damn she'd been distracted!

And now this. This guy! Sent him a mean look over her shoulder, not to be encouraged.

No one she knew?

Didn't look like he belonged here.

In Chautauqua Falls, men followed her sometimes. At least, with their eyes. Most times Rebecca tried not to notice. She'd lived with brothers, she knew "men." She wasn't the shy fearful little-girl type. She was strong, fleshy. Wanting tothink she could take care of herself.

But this afternoon felt different, somehow. One of those wan warm sepia-tinted days. A day to make you feel like crying, Christ knew why.

Not that Rebecca Tignor cried. Never.

And: the towpath was deserted. If she shouted for help . . .

This stretch of towpath she knew like the back of her hand. A forty-minute walk home, little under two miles. Five days a week Rebecca hiked the towpath to Chautauqua Falls, and five days a week she hiked back home. Quick as she could manage in her damn clumsy work shoes.

Sometimes a barge passed her on the canal. Livening things up a little. Exchanging greetings, wisecracks with guys on the barges. Got to know a few of them.

But the canal was empty now, both directions.

God damn she was nervous! Nape of her neck sweating. And inside her clothes, armpits leaking. And her heart beating in that way that hurt like something sharp was caught between her ribs.

"Tignor. Where the hell are you."

She didn't blame him, really. Oh but hell she blamed him.

Tignor had brought her here to live. In late summer 1956. First thing Rebecca read in the Chautauqua Falls newspaper was so nasty she could not believe it: a local man who'd murdered his wife, beat her and threw her into the canal somewhere along this very-same deserted stretch, and threw rocks at her until she drowned. Rocks! It had taken maybe ten minutes, the man told police. He had not boasted but he had not been ashamed, either.

Bitch was tryin to leave me, he said.

Wantin to take my son.

Such a nasty story, Rebecca wished she'd never read it. The worst thing was, every guy who read it, including Niles Tignor, shook his head, made a sniggering noise with his mouth.

Rebecca asked Tignor what the hell that meant: laughing?

"You make your bed, now lay in it."

That's what Tignor said.

Rebecca had a theory, every female in the Chautauqua Valley knew that story, or one like it. What to do if a man throws you into the canal. (Could be the river, too. Same difference.) So when she'd started working in town, hiking the towpath, Rebecca dreamt up a way of saving herself if/when the time came.

Her thoughts were so bright and vivid she'd soon come to imagine it had already happened to her, or almost. Somebody (no face, no name, a guy bigger than she was) shoved her into the muddy-looking water, and she had to struggle to save her life. Right away pry off your left shoe with the toe of your right shoe then the other quick! And then— She'd have only a few seconds, the heavy work shoes would sink her like anvils. Once the shoes were off she'd have a chance at least, tearing at her jacket, getting it off before it was soaked through. Damn work pants would be hard to get off, with a fly front, and buttons, and the legs kind of tight at the thighs, Oh shit she'd have to be swimming, too, in the direction the opposite of her murderer . . .

Christ! Rebecca was beginning to scare herself. This guy behind her, guy in a panama hat, probably it was just coincidence. He wasn't following her only just behind her.

Not deliberate only just accident.

Yet: the bastard had to know she was conscious of him, he was scaring her. A man following a woman, a lonely place like this.

God damn she hated to be followed! Hated any man following her with his eyes, even.

Ma had put the fear of the Lord in her, years ago. You would not want anything to happen to you, Rebecca! A girl by herself, men will follow. Even boys you know, you can't trust.

Even Rebecca's big brother Herschel, Ma had worried he might do something to her. Poor Ma!

Nothing had happened to Rebecca, for all Ma's worrying.

At least, nothing she could remember.

Ma had been wrong about so many damn things . . .

Rebecca smiled to think of that old life of hers when she'd been a girl in Milburn. Not yet a married woman.

The Gravedigger's Daughter. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet 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. 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.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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The Gravedigger's Daughter 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read most of Oates' books, but this beats all predecessors. Simply put, this book is in a class all its own. While intricately written, the book has a very basic theme, I think. Not strictly about being abused by males, whether by a father, husband, son, whatever....it is about choices on the one hand and fate on the other. I saw the abuse, but I think the story line focused more on the hand we are dealt in life and what we make of it. Rebecca/Hazel chose to run from it. In my opinion, a wise choice. In the end, sad though it was, she ended up returning back to her roots. We don't choose what race or generation we are born into no more than we choose the color of our eyes or the texture of our hair. I believe the underlying theme is the lack of tolerance in this world and the utter sadness and fear that are the ultimate result.
DesC More than 1 year ago
This was the first Oates novel I read and it was pretty good. It was longer than it should have been (and would have been better if it was condensed) but it was a good story. I will definitely read more of her books in the future.
Kat_2010 More than 1 year ago
I read this book while I was on vacation, and I could not put it down. The plot is original and I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. There is romance and scandal; some parts are thrilling while other parts are sad. I would definitely recommend reading the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An amazing book that only Oates could write. She writes with deep knowledge of her characters. They are so developed you get to know them. A great story that encompasses many years from the hovel in which the Grave Digger's Daughter was "raised" to the triumpth of her later years. Her secrets are never revealed but they totally shape her and her son.
DesiDivine More than 1 year ago
This is a LONG book. It took me about 3 weeks to finish it, but I think it was worth it. Hazel Jones (AKA Rebecca Schwart) is a very intriguing. Her life is a series of ups and downs. This novel takes you into the world of a girl from an immigrant family. She is born in New York harbor and grows up under unusual circumstances. I don't want to say to much so that I don't ruin the story for you. But, read this novel! You wont regret it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
such a good story...I had trouble putting it down. I hadn't read anything from Oates in awhile and am so happy to re-discover her....
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely could not put this book down! Despite the length, it kept my attention.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
first one of Joyce Carol Oates books I read, definitely makes me want to read more
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1959 in Chautauqua Falls, New York, a stranger tries to abduct Rebecca Tignor nee Schwart. Stunned especially since her kidnapper insists she is a Hazel Jones, Rebecca reflects on the violence of her life. Her parents and two older brothers barely escaped the Nazi final solution. When she was thirteen, her father killed her mother and almost murdered Rebecca, before finally killing himself in a murder suicide. She married a violent man, traveling beer salesman Niles Tignor.----------------- When she got away from her captor she comes home only to be beaten by her husband. Rebecca knows she must leave before Niles kills her and their nine year old child Niley. She becomes Hazel Jones and Niley becomes Zacharias. Hazel and Zach move all over New York until she meets kindhearted wealthy Chet Gallagher, but although she loves him she still hides her roots even from him.-------------- This is an entertaining look at the life of a woman who always has chose flight over fight. She was raised in fear, married in fear, and became a nomad out of fear, and now with Zach has a chance to live outside of fear if she takes the risk with Chet that he is as kind as she thinks. The ¿Beyond¿ ending seems odd and the basic theme is one that Joyce Oates has used often, but fans of the author will not mind a bit as no one better gets inside the psyche of a person who believes that relationships especially with males means being used, abused and you lose.------------- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I didn't think I would like this book when I started reading it but soon got completely wrapped up in Rebecca's story!
2manykids More than 1 year ago
No ending, I am not an author, therefore, it is very annoying when a book does not end with an ending. This book was a waste of time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't wait to start this book after what I'd heard about it, but I ended up being disappointed. I thought it was way too long and boring. It sort of felt like......so what? I must have missed something!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the story but was disappointed in the ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I appreciate the lengthy descriptions but could not find a reason (s) for Rebecca feeling the way she did about the people in her life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Took awhile to get into but once i did, i was mesmerized- highly recommended
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