Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Gravedigger's Daughter / by Joyce Carol Oates

By the time Joyce Carol Oates graduated from Syracuse as valedictorian in 1960, she'd already won several short story contests and was well on her way to becoming one of most prolific fiction authors in American literary history. Her 1969 book them, focusing on the downtrodden lives of an extended family of lower-class midwesterners, won the National Book Award and three of her novels in the last two decades have been nominated for Pulitzers. The sheer volume of her published works and seemingly irrepressible stream of assorted literature (adult and YA novels, short stories, plays, poetry, essays, criticisms, etc., all in addition to teaching at Princeton) is something of a phenomenon on par with writers like Danielle Steel and Stephen King. 2007's The Gravedigger's Daughter vaguely references the life of Oates' own grandmother tracing the life of an abused woman, the daughter of German immigrants, through the travails of mid-century American life. .

In 1959, Rebecca Tignor is a young wife and mother living in upstate New York where in addition to her homemaking duties, she works in a tubing factory. Despite the fact that she lives reasonably well and loves her husband Niles and son Niles Jr., Rebecca is a bit of an unfortunate soul. Her husband Niles, a traveling salesman gone most of the time, wilfully cheats on her readily expecting his carousing and fornication to be overlooked as "just a part of who he is". Plus her job keeps her away from her still small child much of the day. There's a deeper resonance to her grief though. The child of German immigrants who gave birth to her during the actual crossing, Rebecca's life as the only daughter of Jacob Schwart, once a school teacher and budding intellectual turned gravedigger and cemetery caretaker, was not an easy one. In fact it was downright cruel and horrific. At 13, after a particularly bad experience in which he'd been brutally made the scapegoat of Nazi German atrocities in WWII, Jacob Schwart killed his wife Hannah (Rebecca's mother) before turning the gun on himself. The ghastly murder-suicide, personally witnessed by Rebecca, has followed her everywhere.
But then an odd incident in which she's mistaken for another woman suddenly changes her destiny. Dismissing it initially as just another coincidence, Rebecca rethinks her options after nearly being killed herself during a violent argument with her husband. Abruptly taking on the identity of the woman called Hazel Jones, Rebecca and her son (renamed Zacharias) carve out a new path, leaving their New York home altogether and setting out on the road where she takes on odd jobs periodically all the while maintaining the identity of Hazel. But just when she thinks she's escaped her afflicted world of violence and abuse, reinvented herself inside a new persona and claimed a more prosperous livelihood, Rebecca finds the past catching up with her all over again.
The Gravedigger's Daughter is not a very happy story. Not a whole lot of Oates' fiction is. Beginning way before Rebecca's birth, we're shown the oppressive circumstances leading to the Schwart family's escape from Germany, far from welcoming arrival in America and perpetually bleak circumstances within a world removed from the war overseas yet self-destructing all the same. Jacob Schwart is a very, very angry man; and not without reason though it could be argued he's a bit too self-absorbed and ill-equipped as a father. A once-proud, self-made individual brought down in the world both physically and emotionally, he soon cracks under the severe humiliation as an unwanted outsider, a breakdown causing him to turn his wrath on those closest to him--his family--ultimately begetting a legacy of violence and abandonment to his daughter. Oates is very good at integrating the two stories, narrating both Rebecca's flight from her home with intermittent flashbacks to her torrid youth and also the plight of the Schwart family, their seemingly cursed situation, acute instances of harassment and the near disintegration of their entire lineage. (FIC OATES)

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