Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: The Gravedigger’s Daughter
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Pages: 592
Genre: General Fiction, Historical Fiction
Release Date: September 1st, 1995
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Source:Personal Copy

I’ve always had a bit of a strained relationship with Joyce Carol Oates.  First, she’s kind of creepy looking in a Tim Burton movie kind of way.  She’s written so many critically acclaimed novels that I haven’t been able to keep up.  And to be honest, most of the time I feel like I spend my time within her novels trying to convince myself I like them.  I’ve read four – We Were the Mulvaneys which I tried reading in high school and hated, Foxfire which I loved beyond reason (and I also loved the Angelina Jolie film), Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart which I read for a college class as an example of how not to write black characters from a white perspective, and finally, I’ve just finished The Gravedigger’s Daughter.

Daughter is the tale of Rebecca Schwart, born on a ship in New York Harbor at the end of her family’s journey to escape Nazi Germany in 1936.  The Schwarts are desperate to be ‘American’ and escape the prejudices of being Jewish – they change their names, their language, and never speak the word ‘Jew’.  Rebecca’s father becomes the local cemetery caretaker in a small town in upstate New York, promising better things (after all, he was a much respected math teacher in Germany) once the townspeople realize that the Schwart family is no different than anyone else.  Of course, their dreams turn into tragedy, and Rebecca is forced to run from, confront, and finally accept the imperfect America of the 20th century and her own past.

The beginning of this story is beautiful, haunting, and completely engaging.  We’re privy to a slice of Rebecca’s adult life and a bit of a mystery she finds herself involved in.  Once we’re transported back to her childhood, Oates does a magical job creating this immigrant family struggling to overcome the prejudices of the outside world while also struggling with their own hidden demons.   Unfortunately, the narrative lags for about two hundred pages as Rebecca and her son are running from her abusive husband.  She is entirely encased within her paranoia, which is understandable, but Oates is unable to make her sympathetic enough to make a couple hundred pages of moving from small town to small town exciting.  The story began to feel more like a travel journal of upstate New York.  But the novel’s final 100 pages see us back on track.  Having been allowed into Rebecca’s past and present, we are now thrown into her future in a series of letters she writes to a long lost relative.  A jarring change to almost musical prose, but what a jolt of realism Oates has provided!

I also particularly liked the honest portrayal of American society – especially in regards to the anti-Semitism.  Yes, America fought in the war against Germany, but that does not mean Jewish people didn’t undergo terrible bigotry and violence by the very people who so proudly took responsibility for helping end the atrocities taking place in Europe.  Americans were creating their own atrocities right here – with Japanese war camps and an overall distaste for anything seen as ‘other’.

So obviously, I didn’t hate this particular novel.  The subject material, WWII and its effects, is always a favorite topic of mine.  I liked Rebecca’s spirit and her strength.  Oates knows how to write a gorgeous sentence, but she often gets a bit exclamation point happy and loves to overuse italics.  The italics are particularly annoying as the repetition of sentiments that Oates obviously finds rather genius seems a bit pompous and patronizing to the reader.  I will warn any interested readers out there – Daughter is far from a happy novel.  The first half is incredibly bleak.  By page 500 you’ll be preparing for a horrific ending only to be pleasantly surprised by a story come full circle and perhaps even a little hope.

P.S. Doesn’t she frighten you just a bit?


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