Cover image for The grave of God's daughter
The grave of God's daughter
Block, Brett Ellen.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Morrow, [2004]

Physical Description:
289 pages ; 24 cm
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Brett Ellen Block's unforgettable debut novel, The Grave of God's Daughter, is a haunting story of lost innocence, transgression, faith, and forgiveness set against the stark canvas of a struggling mill town.

At the funeral of her estranged mother, a woman is faced with the past she has tried to put behind her only to find that what transpired in her childhood has never been further away than her own shadow, and now the choice to close the thirty-year rift between mother and daughter has been laid before her.

The year is 1941. Rooted in the lonely outreaches of the Allegheny Mountains is the town of Hyde Bend. Its heart was a steel mill; its bones are the tight community of Polish immigrants who inhabit it; and its blood, their fierce Catholic faith. But buried in the town's soul is a dangerous secret surrounding the death of a revered priest.

When a young girl from the town's poorest quarter accidentally unearths a sliver of the truth surrounding the illicit secret, a woman is found dead and Hyde Bend erupts in fear and finger-pointing. Compelled to unravel the intertwining mysteries, the young girl discovers her own family at the center. To save them and herself, she must confront everything she thought she knew, including her feelings about all she holds sacred.

Vivid, evocative, and psychologically penetrating, The Grave of God's Daughter captures the hidden inner life of a town battling to survive in a rapidly changing world, and paints an extraordinary portrait of a young girl's fierce longing for grace. The result is a novel of transcendent beauty that no reader will soon forget.

Author Notes

Winner of the 2001 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Block, author of the short story collection Destinationnown (2001), sets her debut novel in 1941 in the small town of Hyde Bend, an enclave of Polish Catholic immigrants. The impoverished 12-year-old narrator, the daughter of a mill worker and a cleaning lady, determines to get herself a job when her mother is forced to pawn her favorite painting to make the rent payment. She persuades the kindly local butcher to let her make deliveries; enlists her beloved little brother in her scheme to keep her job a secret; and talks to a reclusive customer who has a secret related directly to her own family. Most of all, after one too many bitter fights between her parents, she recognizes that it will take a lot more than money to fix their meager, threadbare existence. Although Block seems to move inexorably toward a dramatic climax, it never pans out; instead, she offers here a view of poverty that rivals something out of a Grimm fairy tale, complete with rats in the outhouse and a hissing, feral landlady. --Joanne Wilkinson Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

A young girl uncovers dark family secrets in a haunting, evocative first novel by storywriter Block (Destination Known). In 1941, Hyde Bend is a tiny town on a sharp turn in the Allegheny River; its big employers are a steel mill and a pesticide plant, and virtually all its inhabitants are Polish Catholics. Dressing as a boy, Block's young, unnamed narrator delivers meat for the town butcher (she doesn't want anyone to recognize her) in order to raise enough money to buy back the Black Madonna, a family painting that's now gathering dust at the local pawn shop. The mystery of the painting is revealed through Block's detailed portrayal of the troubled relationship between the girl's cold mill worker father and her desperate, beautiful mother, both of whom do their best to avoid one another while raising the narrator and her younger brother, Martin. As a delivery "boy," the girl has a window into the town's other households, which proves especially useful when rumors start circulating about the murder of the town's tyrannical matriarch, Swatka Pani. Block deftly balances the subsequent murder mystery with a rich family and community portrait, revealing a treacherous, insular world that the narrator and her brother must constantly negotiate. As Block's narrator makes her way through the maze of secrets linking her mother and Swatka Pani, she also learns more about her family's tortured dynamic. Block's fluid prose makes the combination especially intoxicating, and her ability to uncover the shadowy, dangerous heart of a wartime mill town is just as impressive. Agent, Jonathan Pecarsky at the William Morris Agency. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A relentlessly grim portrait of a small Pennsylvania mill town in 1940, Block's first novel could well take place during medieval times. The story revolves around a destitute family in Hyde Bend, a Polish enclave along the Allegheny River that is dominated by a steel mill and a chemical factory, with an imposing cathedral in between. The father, an embittered alcoholic, works the night shift at the mill; the mother spends her days cleaning the cathedral and rectory. Their 12-year-old daughter (no one ever refers to her by name) serves as primary caretaker for her seven-year-old brother. She also narrates, giving the work a child's limited scope. The children always seem at the mercy of uncaring adults, including the nuns at school. Yearning for freedom and knowledge, the daughter secretly takes an after-school job delivering packages for the butcher, who provides her with a hat and pants so that she can disguise herself as a boy. This ruse starts a cascade of lies that plague her with guilt, but her encounters allow her to unravel the truth about her community and her background. Recommended, especially for first-novel collections.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Grave of God's Daughter A Novel Chapter One I was once told that the distance between a lie and the truth is like the distance between thunder and rain -- the latter is never far behind. But now, even as darkening clouds crest the hillside above the cemetery where my mother will soon be buried, I know it will not rain, not today. It is almost winter and the grass is brittle underfoot, though it remains a vibrant, almost vehement, shade of green. My mother's simple coffin rests on planks of wood, suspended above her open grave, while a handful of mourners gather along either side. The few elderly men and women stand around solemnly, unspeaking, like people waiting for a bus. I recognize no one, but to them, I am the stranger. "Are you the daughter?" a voice asks. It is the priest. His skin looks pale against his long purple vestments and his back is severely hunched beneath his overcoat. It is as if years of ministering to the people of this town have buffeted him into the humble pose, the way a tree can be permanently bent by the wind. "Yes," I say. "Yes, I am. I'm sorry I--" "No matter. You're here now," he says, with the firm manner of a doctor rather than the kind or careful demeanor usually ascribed to a priest. That may be the very reason my mother chose him to perform her service. I imagine her planning this funeral the way one might plan a wedding. Making a guest list, choosing the church, handpicking songs for the organist to play. More important still would have been the location of her burial, Saint Ladislaus cemetery. Set on a low knuckle of the Allegheny Mountains, it is an old community cemetery, full of generations of coal miners and steelworkers who saved what little money they earned to buy marble tombs and detailed headstones, the only memorial to their existence they would ever have. What no one knew when the cemetery was founded was that an underground stream flowed deep beneath the property and, over time, the moving water has buckled the land. The once-smooth sprawl of earth is now rolling with knolls, the grass undulating like sand dunes. All of the delicately carved headstones list and pitch as if riding a heady sea. The sculptures of angels with their eyes upturned to heaven are now tipped and gazing off like bored schoolgirls. Undermined by what secretly pulsed below, this cemetery speaks more about the condition of life than that of death. "You made it." I turn and find my brother, Martin, plodding up the dirt path toward the grave site. Were it not for his voice, I wouldn't have known him. His face looks as if all expression has been beaten out of it. His clothes are rumpled like he has just been in a fight and was lucky to have escaped unscathed. Martin hugs me roughly. In that brief embrace, I can smell the liquor on him. "I'm glad you're here," he says. His eyes linger on my face for a moment, a flicker of grateful recollection, then he pulls away, uncomfortable being so close. I know better than to ask him how he's been. It will only invite an argument about how I haven't called or written or visited, about how I have abandoned my old life, this town and him. It is neither the time nor the place for a conversation about my failings. To spare him the silence, I ask softly, "Who are these people?" "Couldn't say for sure. All from the church, I s'pose." We are my mother's only living relatives, the only remnants of her family. "Priest's about to start," Martin says, ending the conversation before either one of us can say something that might make us feel more than we have to. I approach my mother's coffin and Martin positions himself at my side, though he is more in front of me than anything else. There is a rip in his jacket that starts at the shoulder and carves down over the ribs, a jagged gash that makes it seem as if my brother has been stabbed in the back. The long, fraying tear is a reminder of why I am here and why I left. What I know about my brother's life now is scant, almost cryptic, like the bottom of a page torn out of a long, inscrutable book. He hasn't worked in years and has never married. For him, home is a room in a boardinghouse and the only regular thing about his life is the welfare checks he receives monthly in the mail. Decades of heavy drinking have taken their toll. It is as though the liquor has literally diluted my brother's blood, leaving his spirit limp, like a bedsheet on a clothesline in a gale. He is not the person I once knew nor, I doubt, will he ever be again. The priest clears his throat and bows his head ceremoniously. Martin drops his eyes, then buries his hands in his pockets, hiding them from the chill of the rising wind. It appears to be an effort for him to stand straight. I can't be sure if he is drunk or if it is true sorrow that has rendered him unsteady. When he was a child, my brother was precocious, eager, resolute. He was the child I would have liked to be. But since that one spring in our childhood, when everything in our small world unhinged itself from what we knew it to be, my brother has never been the same. From then on, Martin was a ship set adrift, never able to maintain course. Years later, his drinking served only to snap the few sails he had onboard. I fear that with my mother's death Martin's ship will run aground and become hopelessly moored on shore, never to set sail again. It is a fear that stings my heart ... The Grave of God's Daughter A Novel . Copyright © by Brett Block. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Grave of God's Daughter: A Novel by Brett Ellen Block 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.