The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of Jacob Schwart, a high school teacher, who, after fleeing Nazi Germany with his pregnant wife Anna and two sons, Herschel and August, end up arriving and making lives for themselves in the United States.
Anna gives birth to a baby girl, Rebecca, while docked at the New York harbor. They are initially elated to have arrived but end up running into some harsh realities. Jobs are scarce and people are unfriendly towards immigrants. Jacob, an intellectual, is forced to take on work as a gravedigger at a local cemetery. Accepting such a lowly job leaves Jacob's children, August and Herschel, open to ridicule at school. Anna in turn withdraws into herself and Herschel takes to unsavory behavior, bullying, violence, and the like.
Within the Schwart home, the family begins to lose its bearings. Herschel harbors incestuous feelings for his sister Rebecca. Augustus is a bit of a lout. Rebecca is the only one who seems worthy of excelling. Eventually Herschel drops out of school to help his father with the family business. Jacob, meanwhile, crumbles beneath the rigorous pressure of his work.
During Halloween, the vitriol and anti-Semitism being directed towards the family comes to a head when the gravestones at Jacob's work are defaced with swastikas. Jacob, the fragile intellectual ruined by his life in America, turns violent; when Rebecca comes home from school one day she finds her mother dead and bloody. Jacob is ranting and raving with a shotgun, which he almost turns on Rebecca. At the last second he decides against it, however, putting the shotgun into his mouth and firing.
Herschel gets caught up in criminal activity and develops a record. August runs away, and Rebecca must take care of herself. She eventually flees as well and meets a man named Niles Tignor, a beer distributor and entrepreneur. Since she won't have sex with Niles until a marriage is held, however, he marries her and proceeds cheat on her serially. He disappears for long periods and, when Rebecca discovers she is pregnant, he accuses her of cheating and beats her. When her son is born, a boy named Niley, Rebecca raises him. When he gets old enough for a babysitter, she takes up work in a tubing factory, a dangerous place to work at the time.
At one point Rebecca notices a man in a Panama hat following her around. The man insists that he knows her, and that her name is Hazel. This plays into the idea that she could have lived an entirely separate reality, with a name and an identity not her own.
In the final pages of the book, Niles, his brutality increasing, nearly kills Rebecca. She plans to escape from him, and, taking the then six-year-old Niley, packs up and skips town. She changes her own name to Hazel and Niley's name to Zacharias. Zacharias is a gifted musician, and as they live on the road, picking up jobs, she finds places for him to practice his piano-playing. This occurs for a long while until the two encounter a man named Chet Gallagher, a wealthy heir to a media empire who has spurned his training in classical music in favor of jazz. The three form a family of sorts, and stability, after all the years of terror, is finally achieved.
Best part of story, including ending:
I think it's amazing that Oates wrote about what it really means to escape from torment. From the Holocaust to immigration experience. Incredible.
Best scene in story:
I think the scene when Rebecca comes home to see that her father has killed her mother is absolutely harrowing. It's the nadir of horror, and is especially poignant in context.
Opinion about the main character:
I like how Rebecca constantly persevered, no matter what obstacles came in her path.