by Joyce Carol Oates

Jacob and Anna Schwart escaped Nazi Germany with their two young sons and made the arduous trip across the Atlantic in the foulest conditions. Their daughter Rebecca was born on the ship in New York harbor before the family disembarked.

Jacob had been a school teacher in Germany, but in America the only job he could find was gravedigger. He was demeaned by the work. It was shameful to him. He was angry and dissatisfied. The small salary that he received barely sustained the family, and they lived in poverty. Some of the boys from the town tormented Jacob. Other people shunned the family or simply ignored them. Jacob trusted no one and taught his family to do the same. He forbade his wife to speak any German, and since she couldn’t seem to learn much English, she rarely spoke at all. The isolation and hopelessness in his present coupled with a haunting guilt from some act of cowardice and treachery in his past caused Jacob to descend into rage and violence.

The main character in the story is Rebecca who finally escaped the horror, at least physically, and embarked on a journey to create a new life for herself. She started by marrying, moving to a new town, getting a new job, and having a baby. But an unknown danger lurked in the new place, and violence cause her to run again, this time with a new name and no history. But, of course, no one can forget the past, and Rebecca was constantly watching for anyone or anything that could drag her back to her old life. She worked hard and had some good luck, too. She traveled from place to place with her young son, a promising musician. She met kind people along the way who helped her as much as she would let them. But the fear and distrust she had learned as a child stalked her. She could never fully embrace the woman she had become.

After a lifetime of running away from the gravedigger’s daughter and after successfully reinventing herself, she made an unusual and surprising connection with another person which allowed her to understand and accept her true self.

This story is based on the life of the author’s grandmother who was the child of German Jewish immigrants and an abusive father. Oates says that there was a lot of secrecy about her grandmother’s life. [My] “family history was filled with pockets of silence. I had to do a lot of imagining”.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is not an easy book to read. It explores dark themes like racism, paranoia, depression, and violence (particularly by men and directed against women). Rebecca is resourceful and smart in the ways she needs to be to accomplish her transformation, but she isn’t always likeable. The story is beautifully written, and it is an excellent book. But be forewarned that it is definitely rated R for violence and disturbing images.