NBCC Awards Finalists in Fiction: Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Gravedigger’s Daughter”


This is the fifteenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” (Ecco)

Necessity Is the Mother of Reinvention

“You—you are born here. They will not hurt you,” said the gravedigger to his daughter. But Rebecca Schwart does get hurt in America, first by the gravedigger himself, so brutalized by the menial job he must take after fleeing Nazi Germany that he turns on his family, and then by a smooth-talking lout who pretends to marry her and eventually starts beating her bloody. Like so many battered women, initially she takes it as her due. But soon this crushed flower springs back to save herself and her son, shifting identities as she disappears into America in search of a better life.

At the heart of “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” Joyce Carol Oates’s majestic thirty-sixth novel under her own name, is this resounding No, this refusal by Rebecca Schwart to take what life has thrown at her and endure what she must endure. In layer upon layer of impetuous and keenly felt prose, Oates builds up our understanding of Rebecca: the terror visited upon her by a rigidly disappointed father, the determination to escape when she is orphaned by her father’s own hand, the plaintive faith that love will provide, the rush to a new name and any number of new places when it doesn’t, until finally she is released from her nightmares and can call her life her own.

Thus, in the grand American tradition, Rebecca is able to reinvent herself. And in the grand American tradition, she never really loses sight of her past, circling back to her roots by novel’s end when she knows that she is safe. Layer upon layer, detail upon detail over nearly six hundred pages, Oates has created an indelible portrait, weighty but never impasto-thick; her vision and finely wrought prose see to that. Admirably, as always, Oates is willing to plunge into the sticky emotional heart of things, and in the end we feel with Rebecca: every bruise, every taut-nerved fleeing, every hard-earned breath.—NBCC board member Barbara Hoffert

Michael Dirda review in The New York Review of Books.

John Freeman review in the Houston Chronicle.

Karen Karbo review in Entertainment Weekly.

Susan Kelly review in USA Today.

Melinda Bargreen review in the Seattle Times.

Oates on YouTube “On Writing Characters.”

Excerpt in the Denver Post.