Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Gravedigger's Daughter

The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates is a fascinating book. The story is about the life of Rebecca Schwart, the youngest and only daughter of the three children of the small upstate New York town’s gravedigger. The theme through-out the book comes from the words her father, Jacob Schwart, often spoke to her: “In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of. You must hide your weakness, Rebecca.”

Her parents had escaped from Nazi Germany. Rebecca had been born on the ship in the harbor after they arrived, making her the only one of the family born in the United States, which her father thought would keep her safe. After arriving in the United States, Jacob, who had been a teacher in Germany, begged the town for the position of gravedigger, desperate to have a job to support his family. He remained angry and frightened throughout his life at his position in life and what the family had endured in Germany before their escape. Although, I don’t think that it was ever stated in the book that her family was Jewish, they were terrified that anyone in the US would learn that they were. Rebecca grew up poor and isolated until she was 13 years old, when her world exploded and another life began.

The book examines different types of family relationships and dynamics that existed as Rebecca moved throughout her life.

She grew up in a home where her father was quite abusive to his wife and children. His anger and fear permeated and engulfed everyone with whom he came in contact. The relationship with her mother seemed rather undeveloped in the book, and I think that was due to the largeness of presence of the father. Her brothers left home early, leaving Rebecca living alone with her parents. Following a tragic event at age 13, Rebecca went to live with a spinster in town, and began to learn of a different way to live. Eventually, she went out on her own and lived with a couple of girlfriends, until she became involved with Niles Tygnor, a charming, but abusive man. She had a child with him, and eventually realized that she needed to escape. And as her father had earlier, she left, changed her name, and began a new life with her son. After a period of time, she met Chet Gallagher, who appeared to love her and her son unconditionally. So then “Hazel Jones”, which is who she had become by then, had to learn how to live with yet another kind of relationship.

The book is long, but kept my interest throughout. I was rather frustrated with the lack of past family history from Germany, but that might just be attributed to my passion for genealogy. However, the last few pages of the book began to vaguely address past family. It was a sad story, but ended well. It is definitely a story that has remained with me and I will read this book again at some point.

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