Joyce Carol Oates
The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a lengthy saga about the life of Rebecca Schwart Tignor aka Hazel Jones. Rebecca’s family has come to the US from Europe as Jewish refugees and Rebecca’s father, Jacob, has gotten a job as a caretaker in Milburn , New York . The five person family (parents Jacob and Ann, brothers Herschel and Gus, and Rebecca) live in the stone caretaker’s cottage on site. Anna begins to lose it mentally and Jacob becomes more and more abusive towards his family as the shame of his life in the US eats away at him. Eventually tragedy strikes the family, which starts Rebecca on a rollercoaster of despair.
She meets and marries a young man names Niles Tignor as a teenager and she moves away with him and bears a son, Niley. Despite warning signs, Rebecca has a romantic notion about Niles for the first few years of their marriage, but Niles is also an abusive man and Rebecca is forced to flee from him one night with Niley. The fear of being on the run is forever present to Rebecca. She is forced to change hers and Niley’s names and she chooses Zach and Hazel Jones. The latter name was chosen because Rebecca was mistakenly believed to be a woman named Hazel Jones, and she adopts the moniker without ever knowing who the real Hazel Jones is.
Meanwhile, Zack has issues of his own. He slowly developes a hatred for his mother over the loss of his father. He also turns out to be a prodigy on the piano. Much of the book revolves around Zack’s growth both as a person and as a pianist. His anger became more and more present throughout the book and was discouraging. He became this brooding, sullen, hateful person and I felt that while some of his anger towards his mother was deserved, he also held her responsible for circumstances that were beyond her control.
One thing I definitely did not appreciate about The Gravedigger’s Daughter was the epilogue. I don’t think I am giving anything away at all by discussing the epilogue, so hopefully no one else feels differently. It is an epistolary format between Rebecca and her long lost cousin. My grievance is that it has nothing to do with the book. I felt that it added absolutely nothing. Has anyone else read the book and, if so, do you agree? It’s twenty-five years later and Hazel is now back to being Rebecca. Why? How? What did the intervening years hold? I felt no connect with the actual text. Instead the epilogue just seemed slapped on.
I had a problem with the ending too. Sometimes I get sick of people bemoaning ambiguous ending. Generally, I have no problem when an author leaves things open-ended/. In fact, I would prefer that rather than trying too hard to come up with the perfect ending because sometimes it just doesn’t work. But I am telling you, the ending in this book was bizarre. To me, it was like JCO just stopped in the middle of a chapter or even the middle of a scene. I can’t make heads or tales out of what I should have gotten from. Maybe that’s the point? I don’t know—I finished it before bed last night and was frustrated to the core because of the ending AND the epilogue.
I am a big JCO fan. Her writing style is unique and refreshing, and I am rarely disappointed by her books. The one exception is We Were the Mulvaneys, which I struglled to get through in high school. I was young at the time and my taste in literature was a lot less refined than it is now, so I plan on giving We Were another chance in the hopes that my maturity will have changed my viewpoint of the book. Unfortunately, I feel like The Gravedigger’s Daughter let me down a bit. It was just dry and not very engaging at all. I hope it was just a small blip in my appreciation of JCO’s work.
I borrowed this book from my local library.
This book counts towards the Chunkster challenge.