The Gravedigger's Daughter

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 4/1/2010
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father-a former high school teacher-is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out into America. Embarking upon an extraordinary odyssey of erotic risk and ingenious self-invention, she seeks renewal, redemption, and peace-on the road to a bittersweet and distinctly American” triumph.


The Gravedigger's Daughter
A Novel

Chapter One

Chautauqua Falls, New York

One afternoon in September 1959 a young woman factory worker was walking home on the towpath of the Erie Barge Canal, east of the small city of Chautauqua Falls, when she began to notice that she was being followed, at a distance of about thirty feet, by a man in a panama hat.

A panama hat! And strange light-colored clothes, of a kind not commonly seen in Chautauqua Falls.

The young woman's name was Rebecca Tignor. She was married, her husband's name Tignor was one of which she was terribly vain.


So in love, and so childish in her vanity, though not a girl any longer, a married woman a mother. Still she uttered "Tignor" a dozen times a day.

Thinking now as she began to walk faster He better not be following me, Tignor won't like it.

To discourage the man in the panama hat from wishing to catch up with her and talk to her as men sometimes, not often but sometimes, did, Rebecca dug the heels of her work shoes into the towpath, gracelessly. She was nerved-up anyway, irritable as a horse tormented by flies.

She'd almost smashed her hand in a press, that day. God damn she'd been distracted!

And now this. This guy! Sent him a mean look over her shoulder, not to be encouraged.

No one she knew?

Didn't look like he belonged here.

In Chautauqua Falls, men followed her sometimes. At least, with their eyes. Most times Rebecca tried not to notice. She'd lived with brothers, she knew "men." She wasn't the shy fearful little-girl type. She was strong, fleshy. Wanting to think she could take care of herself.

But this afternoon felt different, somehow. One of those wan warm sepia-tinted days. A day to make you feel like crying, Christ knew why.

Not that Rebecca Tignor cried. Never.

And: the towpath was deserted. If she shouted for help . . .

This stretch of towpath she knew like the back of her hand. A forty-minute walk home, little under two miles. Five days a week Rebecca hiked the towpath to Chautauqua Falls, and five days a week she hiked back home. Quick as she could manage in her damn clumsy work shoes.

Sometimes a barge passed her on the canal. Livening things up a little. Exchanging greetings, wisecracks with guys on the barges. Got to know a few of them.

But the canal was empty now, both directions.

God damn she was nervous! Nape of her neck sweating. And inside her clothes, armpits leaking. And her heart beating in that way that hurt like something sharp was caught between her ribs.

"Tignor. Where the hell are you."

She didn't blame him, really. Oh but hell she blamed him.

Tignor had brought her here to live. In late summer 1956. First thing Rebecca read in the Chautauqua Falls newspaper was so nasty she could not believe it: a local man who'd murdered his wife, beat her and threw her into the canal somewhere along this very-same deserted stretch, and threw rocks at her until she drowned. Rocks! It had taken maybe ten minutes, the man told police. He had not boasted but he had not been ashamed, either.

Bitch was tryin to leave me, he said.

Wantin to take my son.

Such a nasty story, Rebecca wished she'd never read it. The worst thing was, every guy who read it, including Niles Tignor, shook his head, made a sniggering noise with his mouth.

Rebecca asked Tignor what the hell that meant: laughing?

"You make your bed, now lay in it."

That's what Tignor said.

Rebecca had a theory, every female in the Chautauqua Valley knew that story, or one like it. What to do if a man throws you into the canal. (Could be the river, too. Same difference.) So when she'd started working in town, hiking the towpath, Rebecca dreamt up a way of saving herself if/when the time came.

Her thoughts were so bright and vivid she'd soon come to imagine it had already happened to her, or almost. Somebody (no face, no name, a guy bigger than she was) shoved her into the muddy-looking water, and she had to struggle to save her life. Right away pry off your left shoe with the toe of your right shoe then the other quick! And then— She'd have only a few seconds, the heavy work shoes would sink her like anvils. Once the shoes were off she'd have a chance at least, tearing at her jacket, getting it off before it was soaked through. Damn work pants would be hard to get off, with a fly front, and buttons, and the legs kind of tight at the thighs, Oh shit she'd have to be swimming, too, in the direction the opposite of her murderer . . .

Christ! Rebecca was beginning to scare herself. This guy behind her, guy in a panama hat, probably it was just coincidence. He wasn't following her only just behind her.

Not deliberate only just accident.

Yet: the bastard had to know she was conscious of him, he was scaring her. A man following a woman, a lonely place like this.

God damn she hated to be followed! Hated any man following her with his eyes, even.

Ma had put the fear of the Lord in her, years ago. You would not want anything to happen to you, Rebecca! A girl by herself, men will follow. Even boys you know, you can't trust.

Even Rebecca's big brother Herschel, Ma had worried he might do something to her. Poor Ma!

Nothing had happened to Rebecca, for all Ma's worrying.

At least, nothing she could remember.

Ma had been wrong about so many damn things . . .

Rebecca smiled to think of that old life of hers when she'd been a girl in Milburn. Not yet a married woman.

The Gravedigger's Daughter
A Novel
. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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