The Gravedigger’s Daughter
is a 2007 novel by American author Joyce Carol Oates, based loosely on the life of her grandmother and maternal grandfather, the latter who attacked his wife, threatened Oates’ grandmother, then killed himself. It explores how the specter of World War II and the Holocaust affected even those who escaped its immediate impact – sometimes fatally so. Oates described the novel as an effort to recognize the silences that had swallowed up her family, in the wake of the death of both of her parents. Despite her family’s precarity through the war years, they ultimately forged strong ties – even if the price was an overwhelming silence. The novel’s letter-form epilogue has been anthologized several times, and the novel itself has been shortlisted and nominated for several fiction awards.
The novel begins in autumn, 1959. It is now almost two decades since World War II, and the novel’s protagonist Rebecca Tignor walks through the woods near Chautauqua Falls, New York. A man approaches her, asking if her name is Hazel Jones. She tells him no, but remembers the name and later takes it on as her own. It is revealed that Rebecca and her son are about to go on the run from a brutal husband who wants to kill her.
The plot rewinds to 1936. Rebecca is born to Jewish parents in the midst of their escape from Hitler’s regime as it accumulated power in Europe. Predicting a Holocaust, they board a boat to the United States. Rebecca is born on the boat in a New York harbor. The family tries to set up a fruitful life in Milburn, but growing anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States alienates them and keeps them in poverty. Augustus comes to resent work and intellectualism, and Herschel develops incestuous feelings toward Rebecca. He drops out of school to help Jacob with his grave-digging job, a line of work he is not physically or mentally ready to do. Rebecca alone shines through as the one capable of moving past the family’s struggle.
One Halloween, the town’s anti-Semitism towards the Schwart family comes to a head when a group of hateful people defaces the gravestones at Jacob’s graveyard with swastikas. Unable to bear the perceived loss of his family’s dignity and community any longer, Jacob suffers a psychotic episode and kills Anna while Rebecca is away. When Rebecca returns from school, she walks in on the bloody scene. Her father almost shoots her as well, but suddenly turns the gun on himself and fires.
In the murder-suicide’s aftermath, the surviving family teeters on the brink of collapse. Herschel gets into a life of crime and is wanted by police; August leaves without a trace. Meanwhile, Rebecca fends for herself. She is courted by Niles Tignor, a wealthy entrepreneur and beer company owner. Rebecca refuses to have sex until she is married, compelling Niles to propose to her without the intent to be monogamous. Once they are married, he constantly disappears on long affairs with other women. He holds Margaret up to a double standard, accusing her (wrongly) of having an affair when she becomes pregnant with his biological child. Unable to break fully from Niles due to his manipulative tactics and her financial dependence, she gives birth to a boy, Niley, whom she tries to raise apart from him. When Niley is older, Rebecca gets work in a local tubing factory.
At the end of the novel, Rebecca plots to escape from Niles after an especially violent episode in which he nearly kills her. She escapes with Niley, changing her name to Hazel Jones, and renaming Niley Zacharias. Becoming a musical prodigy, Zacharias practices his skills wherever he can find a piano while they are on the run. Hazel helps them survive by taking odd jobs as they move. After several years, they meet Chet Gallagher, a wealthy and good-natured man. Hazel marries him, and finally, she and her son are able to enjoy life as they might have, barring the tragedies of the past.