Review of "The Gravedigger's Daughter," three books about Scotland, recommendations from readers.
The Gravedigger's daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates
Rebecca Schwart started running before she was even born. Her parents fled the Nazis in 1936, and Rebecca was born on a boat in New York harbor.
But while they made it out of Germany, the Schwarts (as her father renames them) never fully escaped. The only job her dad, a former high school teacher, can get is digging graves, and he takes his fury out on his wife and three children. Rebecca's mother, formerly a talented pianist, sinks into depression and isolation.
The only moment of beauty during her childhood is the afternoon when she and her mother sneak a listen at their father's forbidden radio and hear Beethoven's "Appassionata" being played by Artur Schnabel. Her US citizenship ends up saving her life 13 years later, when her dad – twisted by resentment of the adopted country that barely tolerated him – takes a shotgun to his wife and himself. "You were born here. They won't hurt you," are the gravedigger's last words to his daughter.
Rebecca is a Joyce Carol Oates heroine, so that won't be the last instance of shocking violence in her life. Ten years later, fleeing the abusive thug she married with their small son, Rebecca changes her name to Hazel Jones – the name a stranger had mistakenly called her weeks before when he followed her home along a canal towpath. Letting a stranger who terrified her christen her new life is one of Rebecca's last acts of passivity. As Hazel, she is determined to save both herself and her small son, Niley, whom she renames Zacharias.
Oates is exploring familiar themes throughout the 600-page novel – male violence against women, anti-Semitism, assimilation, identity – and the setting is her familiar stomping grounds of upstate New York. The novel resolutely refuses to tidy up: Characters vanish never to return, Rebecca changes so much as Hazel that she might as well be a different person, and Oates strangely ends the book with a collection of letters that came from a recent short-story collection.