Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Gravedigger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

The gravedigger's daughter takes on several names over her lifetime in her attempts to escape her past. The effort is a strain that she is willing to bear until near the end, when she tries to recover a bit of what was lost.

Rebecca Schwart grows up in a cemetery, the daughter of a European immigrant who had to escape Germany to save his family's life. Rebecca is born on the ship in the New York harbor, the first of the family to become an American citizen. The event brings additional hardship to the small family, however, as her father Jacob can only find work digging graves for miserly wages. His employers give him a run-down stone house on the cemetery grounds to live in and seem to believe they are doing him a favor.

While Jacob is careful to express his gratitude and subservience to his employers, inside he seethes with resentment. In Europe he had held respectable jobs and was able to provide well for his family. He tells his wife Anna that he will get them out of there within a year, that they will save and better themselves. To that end he starts a private savings account and carefully puts away bits of his wages regularly.

Because they are no longer in the "old country" Jacob insists that Anna speak only English. She is embarrassed at her speech and does not make friends easily. As time goes on she becomes more and more insulated from the outside world and cares less and less about her house and her family.

There is one time when she regains her hope and excitement: when her sister's family is expected to arrive from Europe and to live with them. Rebecca joins in the excitement and fantasizes about the "new sister" she hopes will share her bed.

Rebecca determines to learn her way out of the graveyard. She suffers from the verbal and physical abuse of her classmates, who look down on her torn and dirty clothes and laugh at her name.

It is perhaps not surprising that a difficult childhood like this one might make a woman strong, untrusting, and wary of others. Yet yearning for intimacy. And so it does with Rebecca. As an adult she makes her way determinedly out of the shade of her childhood. This determination leads to some decisions that later cause further pain and isolate her even more.

The events in the book take place over many years, and the story is developed by several steps into different periods of Rebecca's life and the life of her son. The characters in this story are beautifully constructed. The voices are true, and reflect almost too well the time and place and circumstances. There is no holding back, no softening of the edges. While we may root for Rebecca we don't always love her. We certainly don't love some of the men in her life. Mostly, though, we can't help but feel her pain in wanting a past she could not have.

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