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on 30 September 2007
... 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? Is a new life possible and how will she be able to adjust to love and comfort? Can she trust enough to reveal the story of her past?

Oates' exquisite use of language to evoke characters and landscapes is well known. This talent comes again to the fore in The Gravedigger's Daughter. As the author depicts the ups and downs of Rebecca's emotional and physical life, her style is, at times, light and almost playful, but mostly, given the subject matter it reflects, it is intense and anguished. Those around Rebecca, who are supportive and caring, even loving, are painted as almost too good to be true. The Gravedigger's Daughter is a complex story that will keep the reader captivated to the end. Questions remain in the mind of the reader that the intriguing epilogue will not answer fully. It is not an easy read but worthwhile, in particular those interested in the social complexities in the pre- and post World War II American society. [Friederike Knabe]
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on 17 November 2007
Rebecca Schwarts is the gravedigger's daughter. In many ways she is the ultimate Joyce Carol Oates heroine: flawed, cowed by life, the child of hysterically dysfunctional parents, orphaned by a family tragedy yet always hopeful, always wanting a better life, always yearning. Because of all that befalls Rebecca she builds a wall of despair and impotence around her: "All they knew of Rebecca was that she kept to herself. She had a stubborn manner, a certain stiff-backed dignity. She wouldn't take bs from anybody."
Rebecca's father held his family in terror: he lorded over them and kept them ignorant of the outside world: Mr. Schwarts bought a radio one day and rather than share the news of the day with his family (as in WW2) locked himself and the radio in his den. All that Mr. Schwarts' family (wife, daughter, two sons) knew was that Schwarts had escaped an unspeakable life in Germany: "her (Rebecca's) father had been grievously wounded in his soul."
Mr. Schwarts was fearful of the world, despised it even: "They do not know us Rebecca. Not you and not me. Hide your weakness from them and one day we will repay them! Our enemies who mock us."
Schwarts has invested in his daughter with a fear of the world, a wariness of anything "out there."
Somehow a man, Niles Tignor finds Rebecca, who while working as a housekeeper in a hotel and marries her: "Tignor had not asked about her parents and might not have wanted to know more."
Rebecca, always hopeful, always wanting to find someone that she can count on gives her all to her marriage to Tignor: she even has a child. "It was said of Tignor that you never got to know--but what you did know you were impressed by."
Rebecca's marriage to Tignor goes sour ("he (Tignor) could make her come like a dog when he snapped his fingers...") both on a personal, physical level and on an emotional one and Rebecca finds it necessary to escape and to change her name to Hazel Jones.
In large part due to her youth and good looks, Rebecca is able to make a new life for herself though always fearful that Tignor will find her. This fleeing is a major step for Rebecca, daughter of European peasants: "You made your bed....now lie in it...it was the gritty wisdom of the soil. It was not to be questioned. Her wounds would heal, her bruises would fade."
Then Rebecca and her son Zack are found by Chet Gallagher and both of their worlds change forever. ("She did love him, she supposed. In the man's very weakness that filled her with wild flailing contempt like a maddened winged creature trapped against a screen she loved him")
"The Gravediggers Daughter" is Oates's greatest accomplishment in a career of major, major work: "Missing Mom," The Falls" and my own personal favorite, "We were the Mulvaneys." But despite these career highpoints and probably because of them, Oates has even improved upon her best work with this sprawling, intelligent, gorgeously written novel of Redemption on the one hand and the Power of Love on the other.
The world that Oates has created here is one in which good acts are rewarded with a good life: a world in which there is hope and that hope is not smashed and assaulted but actually leads to a better relationships, a better understanding of life and a better life.
"The Gravedigger's Daughter" is Oates at her most hopeful, her most positive, her most forcefully repellent of all of her usual dark impulses and as such it is Oates at her most refreshing and therefore at her most humanely thrilling and thoughtful.
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The Gravedigger's Daughter is the most compelling novel I've read in decades. My emotions were so wrapped up in this book that I could hear the sounds in the story's background, smell the surroundings, feel the clothing, and taste the food and drinks. I doubt if I'll ever read fiction that will move me as much as this book did.

The Gravedigger's Daughter is the story of Rebecca Schwart's life described in terms of how she accommodated men to gain physical security: her father, her employers, men who made passes, her first lover, her son, her future father-in-law, and her eventual husband. Without accommodating those men, she would not have survived. As it was, survival was not always easy. Ultimately, there was an enormous price to pay: She left little room in her day to be herself. Instead, life unfolded as a continual drama in which she had to play set roles or be treated in horrible ways. Worse still, the men wanted to convince her that their way of thinking was the only way . . . and some of their mantras stuck.

At another level, the book explores the question of whether humans are spiritual creatures or simply predators that feed off one another at their convenience. The book suggests that the spiritual realm has a limited reach, if it does exist.

Another dimension of The Gravedigger's Daughter is a consideration of how genes and environment play a role in shaping our choices and our preferences. This aspect of the book is best portrayed through considering how the lives of three generations played out.

Finally, the book has a profoundly dark look at the lasting damage that evil actions create. Throughout this book, Nazi racism continues to create harm.

Beyond those themes, Joyce Carol Oates has a positive view -- life is precious and worthy of nurturing.

The book's epilogue is a masterpiece. Long-separated cousins grope slowly toward one another in a series of letters that you won't soon forget. It's a marvelous expression of the alienation that separates us from each other.

Let me briefly describe the story. As I do, let me caution you against reading reviews that go into very many details. It would be very easy to spoil this story for you.

The book begins with a prologue in which Rebecca Schwart addresses her feelings about her father ten years after his death. Chapter 1 of Chautauqua Falls, New York switches to 1959 with Rebecca walking home from her factory job while being trailed by a man in a panama hat who makes her feel uneasy. In Chapter 2, you meet Rebecca's son, Niles Jr. (Niley). In Chapter 3, there's a telephone call from Niles Tignor, Niley's father. Niles is away a lot and Rebecca is most anxious for him to return.

From there, the book retreats in time to 1936 in Milburn, New York, just after Rebecca was born. Her parents and two brothers had just escaped from Nazi Germany, and her father had taken on the job of caretaker for the township's cemetery, work that includes digging graves. This is quite a change for a man who was once a teacher. His weak English skills limit his choices along with the Depression economy. This is no land of milk and honey for the Schwart family. The job includes free housing, in a hovel that's served by a graveyard-contaminated well. But hope rises when part of her mother's family later attempts to escape from Germany as well.

The story takes you through all of Rebecca's life, with a special emphasis on her early family life, her work, her first lover, her son, and her eventual husband.

Bravo, Ms. Oates!
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on 9 June 2008
I finished this book in a matter of days, not because it was so good I had to keep reading but because I felt it was leading up to a surprising spectacular ending. Unfortunately, I got my hopes up too high with this one!

The first half of the book sees the main character (Rebecca/Hazel) as a child, which I thought was perhaps the best written part of the book - it was very dark but on the other hand was, in my opinion, relatively well written.

I think it started to go downhill a bit as the main character got older. It's difficult to pin point bad and good points because ultimately I felt some parts of the book were very good, but some were dismissavely boring.

As I said before, the ending was a bit of a something of nothing. It could have been made a lot more exciting with a few twists in it. I think the most interesting characters were invented during Rebecca/Hazel's childhood but they were rarely mentioned again and could have been brought into her adulthood more than they were. I think that would have linked the book more together and bound it as a life-story.

I'm glad I read it, because i did enjoy it, however I probably wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it to a friend.
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on 14 September 2008
I have spent that last two days reading this book and what a page turner it was. There is no mystery to this book or twist in the tale, but instead a real story about how the life and suffering of Rebecca and her son unfolds. The story is based in America and begins with a Jewish family escaping from Germany prior to WW2 and the impact this has upon their lives, and in particular the main character in the book, Rebecca. Rebecca's life and her journey is described page by page from that of a small child to a woman in her 60's dying from cancer.
This book was recommended by a friend and I would definitely recommend it to others. :-)
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on 4 September 2011
An interesting, if overlong text (at 582 pages) with some potent writing, and with Oates' trademark density (in a good way) and depth. I enjoyed the book, and there are some powerful and shocking episodes, covering the life of the protagonist (from the title) through childhood and into late middle age, running from her demons (including echoes of Nazi Germany), and reinventing herself along the way, with some success.

Characters are recognisable, though I found myself a little irritated with Rebecca/Hazel. I couldn't work out if her spurious decisions were from poor writing, or an accurate portrayal of human complexity and a tendency toward inconsistency (I suspect the latter).

Oates is currently one of the foremost US novelists, and her recent article in the New Yorker describing her husband's death is one of the best I've read on this topic. Her writing is straightforward and uncomplicated (no long words here - Will Self take note), precise and (usually) concise.

I'd recommend this novel - its large, elliptic arc has shades of Updike and Roth. though you may find yourself skipping some passages, searching for outcomes of the more dramatic events :)
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VINE VOICEon 3 February 2010
This novel is very much about identity. We start with Rebecca as a young mother, and we quickly realise that all is not totally well in her marriage. The book then goes back to Rebecca's childhood. It is here we quickly form a pychological profile of Rebecca and the events that have shaped her and led her to the circumstances in which she finds herself at the start of the book. She is an extremely damaged person, but when we view her childhood, her parents were also deeply damaged and humiliated, and this has completely warped their ability to nurture their children. Events have been so appalling for them that it has overshadowed everything in their life in America, and they view the world with a deep mistrust and suspicion. Rebecca tries to reinvent herself, but the price she ultimately pays is very high. On one level she succeeds very well, but on another she has to suppress so much. It is a moving novel and Joyce Carol Oates is very good at getting to the heart of what makes a person tick.
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The Gravedigger's Daughter is the most compelling novel I've read in decades. My emotions were so wrapped up in this book that I could hear the sounds in the story's background, smell the surroundings, feel the clothing, and taste the food and drinks. I doubt if I'll ever read fiction that will move me as much as this book did.

The Gravedigger's Daughter is the story of Rebecca Schwart's life described in terms of how she accommodated men to gain physical security: her father, her employers, men who made passes, her first lover, her son, her future father-in-law, and her eventual husband. Without accommodating those men, she would not have survived. As it was, survival was not always easy. Ultimately, there was an enormous price to pay: She left little room in her day to be herself. Instead, life unfolded as a continual drama in which she had to play set roles or be treated in horrible ways. Worse still, the men wanted to convince her that their way of thinking was the only way . . . and some of their mantras stuck.

At another level, the book explores the question of whether humans are spiritual creatures or simply predators that feed off one another at their convenience. The book suggests that the spiritual realm has a limited reach, if it does exist.

Another dimension of The Gravedigger's Daughter is a consideration of how genes and environment play a role in shaping our choices and our preferences. This aspect of the book is best portrayed through considering how the lives of three generations played out.

Finally, the book has a profoundly dark look at the lasting damage that evil actions create. Throughout this book, Nazi racism continues to create harm.

Beyond those themes, Joyce Carol Oates has a positive view -- life is precious and worthy of nurturing.

The book's epilogue is a masterpiece. Long-separated cousins grope slowly toward one another in a series of letters that you won't soon forget. It's a marvelous expression of the alienation that separates us from each other.

Let me briefly describe the story. As I do, let me caution you against reading reviews that go into very many details. It would be very easy to spoil this story for you.

The book begins with a prologue in which Rebecca Schwart addresses her feelings about her father ten years after his death. Chapter 1 of Chautauqua Falls, New York switches to 1959 with Rebecca walking home from her factory job while being trailed by a man in a panama hat who makes her feel uneasy. In Chapter 2, you meet Rebecca's son, Niles Jr. (Niley). In Chapter 3, there's a telephone call from Niles Tignor, Niley's father. Niles is away a lot and Rebecca is most anxious for him to return.

From there, the book retreats in time to 1936 in Milburn, New York, just after Rebecca was born. Her parents and two brothers had just escaped from Nazi Germany, and her father had taken on the job of caretaker for the township's cemetery, work that includes digging graves. This is quite a change for a man who was once a teacher. His weak English skills limit his choices along with the Depression economy. This is no land of milk and honey for the Schwart family. The job includes free housing, in a hovel that's served by a graveyard-contaminated well. But hope rises when part of her mother's family later attempts to escape from Germany as well.

The story takes you through all of Rebecca's life, with a special emphasis on her early family life, her work, her first lover, her son, and her eventual husband.

Bravo, Ms. Oates!
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on 3 September 2011
Typical of Oates, this tale of immigrant life and womanhood in America in the 20th century is raw and rivetting. It leaves the reader with images and emotions that are sometimes uncomfortable, but also long-lasting. Some might question the need for the epilogue, but otherwise a brillantly written book.
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on 12 August 2013
I read lots of books and although I have a Kindle I must admit to prefering the real thing. A generation thing I guess. To be honest this book was not quite my thing, and I lost interest fairly soon, but I can see that others
might find it a great read.
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