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The Gravedigger's Daughter Hardcover – May 29, 2007

3.5 out of 5 stars 188 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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 a blown-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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Joyce Carol Oates's 36th novel proves that more is, sometimes, more. The Seattle Times calls it an "opus," while The Oregonian describes it as her "masterpiece." In a return to upstate New York, the novel, based in part on the life of Oates's paternal grandmother, carries exceptional emotional heft. While striking Oates's trademark dark, suspenseful notes at the start, it turns to themes of reinvention and hope as Rebecca journeys through life. The epilogue, when an elderly Rebecca pens letters to a cousin who survived the Holocaust, resounds deeply. A few reviewers cited poor writing, confusing narrative switches, and flat secondary characters, but overall, Gravedigger's Daughter may be one of Oates's best novels in years.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061236829
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061236822
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (188 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,853,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jessica Lux on March 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The central character of Joyce Carol Oates's 36th novel changes her identity several times in the course of the epic, conveniently changing portions of her brutal past to transform into a more pure, acceptable lady. In her heart, she remains the Gravedigger's Daughter, the American-born daughter of WWII-era Jewish immigrants Jacob and Anna Schwart. Jacob was humiliated by his stateside job as the local cemetery caretaker, which afforded his family a life of squalor from which Anna slowly withdrew into catatonic madness. As the family spiraled violently out of control in the racist small-town atmosphere of 1940's upstate New York, Rebecca Schwart was orphaned as a young teenager.

Forced to reinvent herself as a charity case, a ward of the state, Rebecca begins to suppress the violent secrets of her past and emerge as a reliable, hard-working girl with no family, but also with no ghosts in her past and no need for anyone's pity. As Rebecca works her way up in society, earning legitimacy through marriage and motherhood, she hears the echoes of her father's harsh words to her. "In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca." The Gravedigger's Daughter is a novel about identity, and the lengths to which we will go to suppress our past to gain the acceptance of others. Rebecca ascends into a life of privilege, but not without looking over her shoulder for past demons.

Rebecca is guarded throughout the novel--to outsiders, to herself, and to the reader--proving herself an unreliable narrator, but the reader who is frustrated by this must remember that Rebecca is unreliable to herself, deluding herself to survive in an impossibly bleak world.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In "The Gravedigger's Daughter," Joyce Carol Oates explores the impact of childhood abuse on the development of a woman's identity. Her intricately designed and compelling novel details the brutal early life of Rebbeca Schwart and follows her into adulthood, one in which the grown woman casts off previous sufferings but never escapes their cruel shadow. The youngest child of an impoverished German Jewish immigrant family, Rebecca endures a barren early life that includes being subjected to an ill-tempered, violent father, the slow and tortured descent of her mother into mental illness and the callous disregard of her two insensitive older brothers.

Unable to endure the moral and spiritual poverty of their graveyard surroundings, Rebecca's brothers flee the wrath of their father and the hopelessness of their condition. Eventually, Rebecca witnesses the murder/suicide of her mother and father, an event whose impact reverberates throughout her life. Abandoned, traumatized and directionless, Rebecca must reinvent herself, first as a ward of the court, then as a wife and mother. It is Oates' brilliant depiction of a woman struggling to create a new self while simultaneously attempting to submerge her previous identity that gives "The Gravedigger's Daughter" its emotional impact. Rebecca's cryptic personae permit her to survive but never grant her existential peace.

What solace she savors derives from her brilliant but tormented son, he the product of one of the most nefarious characters of contemporary literature. Beguiled and then beaten by Niles Tignor, Rebecca re-experiences the controlling, violent outbursts that characterized her father.
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Format: Hardcover
First I must say that this is the first book I have ever read by Joyce Carol Oates. This book is easy to get into, but once strapped in, be ready for the bumpy ride! There is no question (at least to me) about Ms. Oate's genius. I found myself reading passages repeatedly just to appreciate the complexity of word use and the fascinating mirror on humanity that Ms. Oate's holds up again and again in her story. There is a lot of violence in this book, however, I found its use necessary to the story. The story is about a strong woman's survival against incredible odds. I say that the book is a bumpy ride simply because the author flashes backwards and forwards in reality. When the book ended I felt somewhat dissafisfied and didn't know exactly why. However, I find myself thinking of the story and reflecting on the characters. So I think I am dissatisfied because I wanted the book to continue. In any case I recommend this book, however, this is not your "vacation" book. Be in the mood for heavy themes and startling insights into human nature.
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Format: Hardcover
... the weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca. We must". This opening statement reflects a father's command to his daughter, setting the stage for her life. Rebecca, heroine of the story and daughter of immigrants, grows up in rural New York State during the Depression and World War II years. Her environment is characterized by abject poverty, discrimination and prejudice against those who are different. Denying their German-Jewish background is part of their tragedy. No German language is allowed in the house, but neither the mother nor the two older brothers manage the adopted language adequately. Violence, alcoholism and crime are part of daily life in the family and those living in their neighbourhood near the graveyard.

Oates skilfully evokes the oppressive atmosphere in which the gravedigger's family eke out a living, literally at the edge of human society. Increasingly, the young Rebecca withdraws into herself, drops out of school and tries to escape and to follow her brothers. A violent family drama that almost kills her and leaves her alone, in the end provides her with the opportunity for a much brighter future. However, is she capable of freeing herself from her background? Can changing her name, as she does a couple of times, change her life for the better? Hope, trust and happiness are emotions and experiences that are new to Rebecca and that will have to be learned. Her son, a child prodigy pianist from a marriage that was supposed to bring love and happiness, provides her with new energy and focus. But she has to escape again and, now completely unsettled, is moving from place to place until she finds an environment that offers hope and security for her son and herself. Will she stay?
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