By Joyce Carol Oates

From one of the greatest literary forces of our time, an intensely realized, masterful epic of a young woman’s struggle for identity and survival in post-World War II America.

The Gravedigger's Daughter
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco Press
Year: 2007
Pages: 582

In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger’s daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very “American”—triumph. “You are born here, they will not hurt you”—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.

In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The FallsBlonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.


You saw him at a distance: the gravedigger Schwart.

Like a troll he appeared. Somewhat hunched, head lowered.

In the cemetery amid the gravestones. Grimacing to himself as he wielded a scythe, a sickle, a rake; as he pushed the rusted hand-mower in fierce and unvarying swaths through the dense crabgrass; as he dug out a grave, and carted away excess soil in a tipsy wheelbarrow; as he paused to wipe his forehead, and to drink from a jar he carried in his coverall pocket. Tipping back his head, eyes shut and gulping like a thirsty dog.

Schoolboys sometimes squatted behind the cemetery wall that was about three feet in height, made of crude rocks and chunks of mortar, in poor repair. Briars, poison ivy and summac grew wild along the wall. At the front entrance of the cemetery there was a wrought iron gate that could be dragged shut only with difficulty, and an eroded gravel drive, and the caretaker’s stone cottage; beyond these, there were several sheds and outbuildings. The oldest gravestones ran up practically to the rear of the cottage. To the grassy area where the caretaker’s wife hung laundry on clotheslines stretching between two weathered posts. If the schoolboys couldn’t get close enough to Mr. Schwart to taunt him, or to toss chestnuts or stones at him, they sometimes settled for Mrs. Schwart, who would give a sharp little cry of alarm, hurt, pain, terror, drop what she was doing in the grass, and run panicked into the rear of hovel-house in a way that was very funny.

It would be pointed out that harassment of the cemetery caretaker predated Jacob Schwart’s arrival. His predecessor had been similarly taunted, and his predecessor’s predecessor. In Milburn, as in other country towns in that era, harassment of gravediggers and acts of vandalism in cemeteries were not uncommon.

Some of the schoolboys who harassed Jacob Schwart were as young as ten, eleven years old. In time, others would be older. And some weren’t schoolboys any longer, but young men in their twenties. Not immediately, in the 1930s, but in later years. Their shouts wayward and capricious and seemingly brainless as the raucous cries of crows in the tall oaks at the rear of the cemetery.

Gravedigger! Kraut! Nazi! Jew!

Book Covers


  • National Book Critics Circle Award, fiction finalist
  • International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 2009 Longlist
  • Mystery Readers International Macavity Awards: Sue Feder Memorial, Best Historical Mystery 2008 finalist


Joyce Carol Oates: The Gravedigger’s Daughter from Book Passage on


  • Brian Hall, Washington Post Book World, June 3, 2007, p. 2
  • Michael Dirda, New York Review of Books, December 20, 2007
  • Elaine Margolin, Denver Post, June 3, 2007, p. F13
  • Susan Kelly, USA Today, June 14, 2007, p. 6D
  • Jenny Shank, Rocky Mountain News, June 15, 2007
  • Michelle Green, New York Times, June 7, 2007, p. E9
  • Lee Siegel, New York Times Book Review, June 17, 2007, p. 18
  • Hephzibah Anderson,, June 27, 2007
  • Edward Nawotka, San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 2007, p. M3
  • Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2007, p. 38
  • Booklist, March 15, 2007, p. 5
  • Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2007, p. 249
  • Library Journal, May 2007, p. 75
  • Charlotte Observer, May 25, 2007
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), May 27, 2007, p. F8
  • Washington Times, May 27, 2007, p. B7
  • Elle, June 2007, p. 116
  • Entertainment Weekly, June 1, 2007, p. 72
  • Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 3, 2007
  • Oregonian, June 3, 2007
  • The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), June 10, 2007, Perspective, p. 6.
  • Buffalo News (New York), June 17, 2007, p. G4New York Jewish Week, June 22, 2007, pp. 47-48
  • Globe and Mail (Canada), June 23, 2007, p. D2
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 24, 2007, p. 14F
  • St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota), July 26, 2007
  • Chicago Sun Times, July 1, 2007, p. B12
  • Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2007, p. E1
  • Owen Sound Sun Times (Ontario), July 27, 2007, p. B1
  • The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA.), July 29, 2007, p. E4
  • The Australian, August 1, 2007, Features, p. 23
  • Jerusalem Post, August 3, 2007, Books, p. 28
  • Irish Independent, August 11, 2007
  • Sunday Telegraph (London), August 12, 2007, Sec. 7, p. 41
  • Scotland on Sunday, August 12, 2007, p. 22
  • Daily Mail (London), August 17, 2007, Sec. 1, p. 64
  • Sunday Business Post (Ireland), August 19, 2007, Sec: Agenda
  • Sunday Times (London), August 19, 2007, Features, p. 47
  • Arts & Book Review, August 24, 2007, Books, p. 20
  • The Herald (Glasgow), August 25, 2007, Arts, p. 9
  • Weekend Australian, September 1, 2007, Review, p. 10
  • Time Out, September 5, 2007, p. 53
  • Guardian Unlimited, September 7, 2007
  • Financial Times (London), September 8, 2007, FT Weekend Magazine, p. 40
  • The Advertiser (Australia), September 8, 2007, p. W10
  • Nelson Mail (New Zealand), September 12, 2007, Features, p. 33
  • Daily Telegraph (London), September 15, 2007, Books, p. 30
  • Canberra Times (Australia), September 15, 2007, p. A15
  • Kliatt, January 2008, p. 44
  • Hartford Courant (Connecticut), February 24, 2008 p. G4
  • Norah Piehl, Bookreporter, January 22, 2011

Image: “siberian eagle owl” by Cloudtail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s