“You saw him at a distance: the gravedigger Schwart.
Like a troll he appeared. Somewhat hunched, head lowered.”
In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Jacob Schwart, a Jew, moves his family from Nazi Germany to rural upstate New York. They end up in a small town, where Schwart finds a job as a gravedigger and caretaker of a cemetery. He was a high school teacher in Germany, so the job of gravedigger is very demeaning to him, especially seeing how the residents of the community react to him and his family. He manages to eke out a living, barely making enough for him and his family to survive on, living in a small cottage in the cemetery, at the edge of town. The family lives on the fringes of town, not only in poverty, but the fringes of Jacob’s moods and alchoholism. Jacob becomes disillusioned with his situation and with life.
As time goes by, Schwart’s emotional capacity becomes overloaded, and abusive acts occur, and one final and unspeakable act leads to an incomprehensible tragedy. You will have to read it in order to understand, as I don’t want to give too much story line away.
This is the beginning of a new life for Schwart’s daughter, Rebecca. She eventually falls in love, marries and has a son. She ends up in an abusive situation, herself, and runs away with her son, in order to start a new life, under an assumed name. She literally leaves her past behind her. Her strength and stamina get her through some extreme situations.
<p>One line repeated throughout The Gravedigger’s Daughter is, “The weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca.”Her father would say this to her in order to impress upon her that she needed to stay strong.</p>
Rebecca reinvents herself and her son, and they are constantly moving from place to place in order to avoid being found. Her son is a child prodigy, and she encourages him in playing piano, almost to an extreme. She lives through him. August takes his anger at her and his anger at his father out through his music, with its resounding and strong crescendos peaking strongly and wildly.
Oates brings us a strong Rebecca, a woman of determination and strength, a woman of independence and a fierce devotion to her son. She is a woman who has held her emotions in, in order to move forward. She has learned to manipulate the situations she finds herself in. This is both positive and negative.
The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a book about immigration, identity, assimlation, expectations, and family relationships. It is a multi-generational story, and is a long book, not a fast read, which has nothing to do with the 582 page length, but has everything to do the involved story line.
Social history is strong throughout the novel, and Oates deftly defines America during the after-effects of both pre and post World War II. With extreme clarity, she defines the assimilation and the European Jewish Survivor experience, along with their expectations. Oates writes with insight, sensitivity and prose that jumps out from the pages, revealing the dark side of post-World War II America. She is a masterful story teller, and is able to combine both the ugly with the beauty of life. I highly recommend The Gravedigger’s Daughter, not only for its story, its historical factors regarding upstate New York, but also for the perspective of the Jewish immigrant experience and its lasting effects on generations to come.
For me, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a metaphor for the Jewish immigrant experience in all its fullness, from familial struggles and harshness, ugliness and loss, to strength, assimilation and identity.
As an aside: The Gravedigger’s Daughter is dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates’ grandmother, and much of the novel is based on her grandmother’s actual life.