"The Gravedigger's Daughter" is the story of Rebecca Schwart born in New York harbor on the boat on which her parents emigrated from Germany to the United States. Her childhood is harrowing as she grows up with an unpredictable violent father, a mentally weak mother, and two brutish brothers. All of the members of this Jewish family have been diminished by the necessity of their escape from Nazi Germany and arrival in less than friendly and not very prosperous new home in America. At one point during her bleak early years, there is speculation that Rebecca's cousins from Germany may also emigrate to the United States bringing hope of happier days to come. Unfortunately, the refugees are turned back when they arrive in New York, and Rebecca's dreams are dashed. An intelligent and resourceful young girl, Rebecca finds herself trapped in a family that ultimately is destroyed by unimaginable tragedy. She is rescued by Miss Rose Lutter, a kindly religious ex-schoolteacher, but soon leaves that household to make her own way in life. She enters into a dubious "marriage" with a traveling beer salesman named Niles Tignor, and they have a son together. Niles unfortunately is prone to drunken jealous rages one of which results in Rebecca and her son Niley barely escaping with their lives. Renaming herself Hazel Jones and her son Zacharias, Rebecca makes yet another life for herself with her son. Niley (Zack) has a gift for music, and Rebecca eventually enters into a relationship with Chester Gallagher, a disillusioned jazz musician from a wealthy family. Gallagher nutures Zack's musical talent and is devoted to Rebecca. The story ends with an exchange of letters between an aged Rebecca and the cousin she never got to meet, Freyda Morgenstern, who now is a famous author and anthropology professor at the University of Chicago. The story is somewhat reminiscent of "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser as the story of a young girl thrown into the world to fend for herself, although Rebecca's world is more physically brutal. It's a very disturbing story of one woman's struggle to survive, but Oates' ability to render scenes of domestic violence in graphic detail is very powerful.
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