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The Gravedigger's Daughter
By Joyce Carol Oates
582 pages; $26.05
'You are a Jew, aren't you," Niles Tignor snarls at Rebecca Schwart, the gravedigger's daughter, as he dumps their son out of his lap and onto the floor. "I was warned... the Jew is too smart for his own damn good. 'Jew' you down - pick your pocket, stab you in the back, and sue you! There's got to be some damn good reason the Germans wanted to get rid of you. The Germans are a damn smart race."
"I'm the same race as you," Rebecca had insisted. "The same damn race as anybody... The human race."
The daughter of Jacob and Anna Schwart, who fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and settled in a small town in upstate New York, Rebecca was taught that "God is no one and nowhere," that she was surrounded by enemies, that words were lies, that the Schwarts were German Protestants and that she must hide her weakness lest she be exterminated, like a wounded animal. But by the end of Joyce Carol Oates's engrossing new novel, she has learned that she cannot - and should not - escape her identity.
One of the most prolific and preeminent writers in the US, Oates seeks - and sometimes finds - in Rebecca's quintessentially American odyssey, a new angle of vision on a familiar set of subjects: survival and self-invention.
But only sometimes. Oates hits some false notes, including Jacob's premature use of the word "genocide." And, occasionally, The Gravedigger's Daughter feels plotted, its characters acting predictably. In Oates's imagined world, a grim variant of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, (almost) all the women are strong, and the men, whether or not they are good-looking, are invariably feckless or feral.
Oates doesn't explain why Jacob Schwart, a high-school math teacher, printer and soccer coach, who left Germany before Kristallnacht and the concentration camps, turns into a demented and destructive shell of his former self. Or what Nazi horrors silenced Anna Schwart, once a nurturant mother who loved to play Beethoven's "Appassionata."
And Niles Tignor is little more than a "type," erotic, abusive and violent. He exists to teach Rebecca an Oatesian object lesson: "A woman opens her body to a man, a man will possess it as his own. Once a man loves you in that way, he will come to hate you. In time. Never will a man forgive you for his weakness in loving you."
After Rebecca and Tignor decouple, The Gravedigger's Daughter comes alive, as the wandering Jew struggles to shed her identity, such as it is, and remake herself, without quite knowing what she wants to be. To put her "love-delusion" behind her, she chops off the long, heavy hair in which Tignor buried his face, choosing "a breezy short-cut, with bangs scissor-cut just above the eyebrows."
She takes on a new name, Hazel Jones, christens her son Niley Zacharias, and convinces the head clerk at the Hall of Records in Horseheads, New York, to affix the official seal of the state to a birth certificate for each of them. When her brother, Gus, stumbles upon her, she refuses to acknowledge that they are related. And to secure Zach's future, she lies to a man she loathes - a wealthy and powerful man - about who his father really is.
As she recreates her self, Rebecca returns - unconsciously and inexorably - to her roots. She engages in an interior dialogue with her long-dead mother and father, whom she had hated and pitied.
"It's another time, now," she tells Jacob. "History has changed, now." And she introduces Anna to Zacharias Augustus Jones, who has inherited her skills at the keyboard. "A name out of the Bible. For he is blessed of God, Ma... His eyes are beautiful, like yours. Maybe they are Pa's eyes, too. A little." If Anna hears him at the piano, she will know "why I had to live."
Ethnic identity, Oates implies, is bred in the bone. And encoded in the genes. Although Rebecca had never used the words "Jew" or "Judaism" in his presence, Zach announces, suddenly, that he's been reading the Hebrew Bible. "Of all the religions," he wonders, "wouldn't the oldest be closest to God?... I want to know about Judaism, where it comes from and what it is."
Zach's girlfriend, Frieda Bruegger, a cellist, is the daughter of a German Jew, the only member of her family to escape from Dachau.
Those who are thus grounded, Oates seems to suggest, can partake fully and freely in human communion. The particular is not necessarily an enemy of the universal. Her novel, after all, is dedicated to her grandmother, Blanche Morgenstern.
And so, Oates puts Hazel Jones inside the kitchen of the San Francisco Pacific Hotel, where she chats amiably with the room-service staff: Cesar, a youngish Hispanic; Marvel, a black man; and Drake, a Caucasian 40-something. As they listen to music with a Latin beat, the workers pronounce Hazel's name "as if it were an exotic foreign word." Their mood is "heightened, jocular," and Hazel wonders if her presence has something to do with it.
"D'you know gypsy gin rummy?" she asks her new friends. "If I can remember, I'll teach you."
The novel, alas, isn't quite over. Oates is determined to remember the price Rebecca/Hazel has paid - and compare her pilgrimage with that of a survivor of the Holocaust. The Gravedigger's Daughter ends with Rebecca at 62, married to a kind-hearted goy who thought charges of American indifference to the plight of the Jews "exaggerated." She is safe and secure, but "so lonely in this place of retired wealthy people who look at me and think I am one of them."
"You were born here, they will not hurt you," Jacob Schwart had told his daughter.
In a sense, he was right. But, more fundamentally, it depends on who they are, doesn't it? And who you are.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.