Our Daily Bread, Praise
OUR DAILY BREAD LONGLISTED FOR THE 2012 GILLER PRIZE.
OUR DAILY BREAD has been named as one of the “Very Best Books of 2011″ by The Globe & Mail!!
OUR DAILY BREAD has also been chosen one of the “Best Books of the Year” by The Boston Globe (Chosen by Jane Ciabattari)
Jane Ciabattari, past President of the National Book Critics Circle, calls Our Daily Bread “chilling and emotionally authentic.”
QUILL & QUIRE
* (Starred Review) OUR DAILY BREAD
Lauren B. Davis; paper 978- 877655722
258 pp., 6 x 9, Wordcraft of Oregon
Oct. Reviewed from advance reading copy
With her new novel, Montreal-born writer Lauren B. Davis, who currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey, has created a powerful, harrowing and deeply unsettling work. It’s the sort of novel that keeps you reading even as your skin crawls and your blood pressure mounts.
The story centers on the town of Gideon, a pious, God-fearing community seething with the dark underbelly common to all such towns. The neighbouring mountain is home to the Erskine clan, a family with a long history of child abuse, neglect, violence, and drug-dealing. The Erskines’ sins are known among the residents of Gideon, but the family is mostly left alone, ostracized and distanced. Twenty-one-year-old Albert Erskine befriends 15-year-old Bobby Evans, the eldest child of Tom and Patty, whose marriage is crumbling. Bobby’s younger sister, Ivy, persecuted and bullied at school, takes refuge with Dorothy Carlisle, who runs an antique store. It is the nature of small communities (and novels) that the characters’ lives and stories overlap and intersect, shaping and being shaped by one another.
From its brutal opening—describing a humiliation Albert endures when he is thought to be snooping on some older family members who are getting into the meth business—Our Daily Bread proceeds like a noose gradually tightening: something terrible is going to happen, and the reader is kept rapt, wondering what the precipitating incident will be. Davis drew inspiration for Our Daily Bread from the story of Nova Scotia’s Goler clan—she acknowledges David Cruise and Alison Griffiths’On South Mountain, which documents the case and the community, as source material—and she uses this background to create a stark, beautiful, sad, and frankly terrifying novel.
Our Daily Bread is finely crafted, with careful attention to characterization, style, and pacing. It succeeds on every level, and will leave readers, much like the book’s characters, devastated and clawing toward the light.
– Robert J. Wiersema, author of the forthcoming memoir Walk Like a Man (Greystone Books).
The road to hell is also paved with bad intentions
reviewed by alan cuymn
From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Where is hell, exactly?
Up the mountain, where it has always been. The road there takes your children first.
Our Daily Bread, by Lauren B. Davis, is all about that road. Signs blare from the beginnings of many chapters, sermon excerpts from the Church of Christ Returning. But it’s not all fire and brimstone. Much of the scenery looks hauntingly familiar, and that’s the power of a literary novel detailing, almost lovingly, every good intention.
In the balance lie the contested souls of the troubled Evans family, especially those of little Ivy and her teenage brother Bobby. Bobby falls under the influence of Albert Erskine, a young buck from a notorious mountain clan who mentors Bobby down the path to smoking, drinking, stealing – and heading for worse. Albert has broken away, sort of, from the unholy grip of his own people, and lives in a shack on the edge of the main compound. His personal code, built up “slap by slap, bruise by bruise,” begins with an injunction against sleeping in your own vomit, and “You don’t shack up with a woman who tosses her used sanitary napkins in the stove…”
Bobby’s parents are coming apart and so Ivy, too, is vulnerable. But she drifts into the orbit of an angel, Dorothy, the proprietor of an antique shop who keeps a proper wall on the world. Ivy’s apprenticeship couldn’t be in starker contrast to her brother’s: polishing silver, preparing tea, dusting the lacquer from long ago.
If this contest sounds a bit like Bambi Meets Godzilla – well, it is all to Davis’s credit that the outcome seems in doubt. One of the strongest chapters in a novel full of remarkable moments concerns the possibility of salvation offered by a decent, home-cooked meal. Tom Evans’s wife runs off, and Evans collapses into depression. Dorothy, against all her instincts to maintain reserve, hurries over with a prepared dish. The smell of the chicken, the ritual of setting the table, the calm, quiet decency of the gesture, feels for a time almost enough to right the course of this lost family.
But hell beckons. Despite the sermon excerpts, there is little overt religiosity. None of the main characters are churchgoers. The thrust of the sermons has to do with shunning evil, staying away from those who deal with the devil. Slowly it becomes clear that hell is allowed to thrive precisely because it is relegated to the mountain.
That hell, like Sodom and Gomorrah, can’t be looked at too directly. So Davis has us hole up in Albert’s cabin where we can smell the meth labs, the urine and feces, and see the lights of the cars of townies coming for drugs, and watch them go, and later we hear the screams from within the clan because of what the damned adults are doing to their kids.
These horrors feel real not because they are based on “true events” – as they are, inspired by the depredations of Nova Scotia’s Goler clan exposed in the 1980s – but because they’re written real, with a level of detail that puts us in the beating hearts of imperilled souls. No fact-filled journalistic account, no matter how lurid, could do the same, because we’ve already lived the breakdown of Tom Evans’s marriage, we’ve already sat for dinner with a genuinely Christian woman who, out of common decency, offers to do everything she can to see the family through their wretchedness.
Dorothy crosses a line. She shows up on the road to the mountain of hell and offers to walk us back down. Our Daily Bread does the same in simple, brave, powerful scenes, skillfully written with an anger no less effective for being tempered – scenes that sit with the soul long after the book is closed.
Alan Cumyn’s latest novel, Tilt, is about another kind of heaven and hell: tumultuous adolescence.
SIN AND SUSTENANCE
Posted on Jan 5, 2012
By Jean Randich
“Our Daily Bread”
A book by Lauren B. Davis
In her thrilling, polyphonic backwoods novel, “Our Daily Bread,” Lauren B. Davis directs her unflinching gaze at a tumbledown world of the marginalized poor, evoking the injustice of that world with a raw immediacy that simultaneously attracts and repels. On the first page she sounds a frightening motif: “Satan draws the soul to sin by choosing wicked company.” So begins the first of the fire and brimstone sermons, spanning 1794 to 2009, which punctuate the narrative. These homilies chart the ferocious power of an unforgiving religion in Davis’ fictional town of Gideon, a religion that defines our time on earth as a life and death struggle between the righteous and the damned.
We first meet the sinewy, mysterious Albert Erskine, gently planting marijuana seeds in a sprouting box high up on North Mountain, a rugged region inhabited only by dirt-poor mountain folk. When Albert’s uncles catch him spying on their filthy meth lab, they beat him, humiliate him, and we are instantly invested in this young man struggling to grow without a shred of love or respect.
Later he articulates the Erskine code to young Bobby Evans, a townie teen who sees a virile role model in Albert: “You keep your secrets to yourself and you keep your weaknesses a secret and your hurts a secret and your dreams you bury double deep.” This code is a recipe for disaster, disavowing the human need for trust and connection, but it makes perfect sense as the bedrock foundation of a victim of repeated incestuous child abuse.
“Our Daily Bread” was inspired by Davis’ memories of living in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s and hearing grisly, titillating stories about the Goler Clan who inhabited South Mountain. These tales were rife with incest, babies buried on the mountain, child abuse and other crimes. Later Davis read “On South Mountain: The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan” by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, a journalistic account of the arrest, investigation, trial and sentencing of almost an entire generation of one clan for incest and child abuse. She realized the sickening stories had been true, but no one ever did anything about them because the perpetrators and victims were just “mountain.”
So began an ethical question that drives this unforgettable novel: When does the private suffering of others become your business? This is a question that not only Albert Erskine, but also the other memorable characters in “Our Daily Bread” must address. With consummate control and an almost musical sense of when to shift from one story line to another, Davis filters the action through the eyes of Albert Erskine, Dorothy Carlisle, Tom Evans and Ivy Evans. She intercuts her narrative, jumping from one character’s perspective to another, so that the reader accumulates more knowledge than any one of the protagonists. Just as Albert creates tension within the Erskine clan by refusing to conform, Dorothy Carlisle, a 62-year-old widow who runs an antique shop, can’t help but feel compassion for the indigent, disadvantaged clan children. For years she has been anonymously dropping boxes of clothing and food on the mountain, even leaving books especially intended for Albert. Dorothy, unlike Albert, believes that an elegant life is “lived by immersion in the quotidian, by honoring creation with awareness.”
This renders Dorothy an ideal refuge for Ivy Evans, a young girl who is cruelly bullied by schoolmates. Ivy finds solace from her mother’s cold indifference in Dorothy’s company.
Of the four protagonists, Tom Evans, Ivy’s father, a bread delivery man hopelessly in love with his aloof wife, Patty, seems the most leadenly resistant to change. Ivy has a clearer view of her mother’s refusal to participate in the family than her father does. “Mom’s always afraid people don’t love her enough,” Ivy says. Tom’s own denial of the unhappiness of his marriage is so entrenched that the events of the story will have to crush him before he will wake up and take responsibility for his life and that of his
Late in the novel on one grim night Dorothy witnesses a naked child screaming on the mountain, a sight so baleful she evokes the Confiteor, the prayer of contrition, for protection. Dorothy asks herself: “What had she seen? What had she done? What had she not done?” And Davis supplies Dorothy’s prayer: “Oh God, we confess we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” We are struck by the terrifying thought that what we have left undone is the most heinous crime of all.
“Our Daily Bread,” which takes its title from the passage in the Lord’s Prayer referring to daily sustenance as opposed to religious ostentation, raises the question: What do we need every day to survive? “Daily Bread” is not just what you are entitled to, but what you give, every day, to yourself and others. How do you lead a responsible life? When do people learn that what they want, or think they want, is not what they need?
It’s difficult to write about the beauty of Davis’ storytelling without revealing too much. Suffice it to say that she seeks to unfold consciousness, including the reader’s. Davis makes us care about her characters. Whether it is a clubfooted girl balancing on an overturned bucket to glimpse what is going on in the house or the trial in which the children must testify to the horrors done to them, these shocking moments rooted in reality are imaginatively transformed by Davis’ exquisite prose.
Her sense of place, gift for visualization and ear for interior monologue combine to propel us through this savage landscape and the roiling emotional journeys within.
Davis is a cinematic storyteller, but the brilliance of “Our Daily Bread” lies also in what she refuses to show and will never tell. Her moral fiction calls us to empathize, read, imagine and hear, not only what is said, but the unsaid as well. This is a story of getting lost in the woods, of meeting the monster and getting out alive. Davis never takes us inside the house where all these perversions are committed; we only see defenseless children entering, exiting and spying in at the window. She strategically balances the quotidian against the grotesque, calm against menace, quiet against violent, until, of course, all roads lead to the top of the mountain where all hell breaks loose. High on meth and even more paranoid, “The Others”—the children’s name for the abusive adult members of their clan—are having a Saturday night blowout. Albert has brought Bobby Evans to see where he lives, a transgression strictly proscribed by the clan. The rest of the Erskine children, pressed to the breaking point by the meth-fueled abuse, turn to their big brother Albert to stand up for them in their fight to survive. The page-turner climax that Davis delivers, detonating the intersecting plotlines into an apocalyptic ball of fire, will make your hair stand on end.
Canadian-born Davis doesn’t locate Gideon geographically. It could be anywhere in North America where there are mountains and a culture that thrives on shunning pariahs. Meth labs have sprouted up all over the United States and the prevalence of an intolerant “us and them” philosophy, religious or secular, has only ballooned in the age of terrorism. Davis’ characters are outsiders all, excluded from the ordinary web of nurturing relationships, yet somehow through their ability to sense unspoken needs and through acts of compassion, they are able to come to one another’s assistance in unexpected ways.
Davis closes with a final image of ashes scattered and then spiraling in an updraft off the waters of Nantucket. It is an image of flight, of freedom. It has come at the expense of a life. But what is truly startling about this journey is that it is made not just by one, but by all of Davis’ homespun warriors. A tormented, once silenced soul rises, perhaps irrevocably free.
Jean Randich is a director who has been staging new plays, political and musical theater, as well as reimagining the classics for more than 20 years. Randich has received an NEA/TCG director fellowship, a Fox Foundation grant and a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts grant. She has an MFA from Brown University and a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama. Randich teaches at Bennington College and NYU.
Characters make novel work
Alberta Daily Herald Tribune
By Alexis Kienlen, Off the Shelf
September 5, 2013
One of the great things about fiction is that it can fully explore the relationships between people and what brings people together or apart. I recently read Lauren B. Davis’ book Our Daily Bread and found myself reflecting on the story and how humans define the concept of “Otherness.”
Davis is a Canadian writer currently living in Princeton, New Jersey. Her novel Our Daily Bread was long-listed for the Giller prize in 2011. This is the first time I’ve read Davis’ work, but I will definitely be reading more. She’s written a number of short story collections and novels and her most recent novel is The Empty Room.
Our Daily Bread is based on the real-life story of Nova Scotia’s Goler clan. Davis lived in Nova Scotia for several years, and remembered hearing stories about the Golers, an extended family who lived on a mountain outside Wolfville. The Golers were rumoured to be involved in drugs, sexual abuse and incest. However, the story is not about the real-life Golers and is completely fictionalized.
Davis takes her story away from Nova Scotia, and situates the action in the fictional community of Gideon in New England, focussing on several characters. Albert Erskine is a member of the Goler clan. He longs to escape from the perils of his family, but doesn’t quite know how to do so.
Albert is different from some of the other members of his family. He reads, and wishes to isolate himself from some of their activities.
Down in the town, the Evans family are having their own problems. Tom Evans’ marriage to an outsider is beginning to crumble. Meanwhile, his son Bobby is starting a friendship with Albert, and his daughter Ivy is getting bullied at school.
Ivy, who is slipping between the cracks as her parents’ relationship falls apart, finds solace in Dorothy Carlisle’s antique shop. Dorothy is an older widow who has secretly been leaving supplies for the mountain children for years. She has a kind heart, and a desire to help those who are in difficulty. Yet her desire to help leaves her ostracized by members of her own community.
Gideon is a God-fearing town, and some of the community members are judgemental of others, even though everyone in town has their own secrets.
What makes this book work is how well the characters intersect and come together. The reader knows that something bad is going to happen, and that secrets are going to be revealed, but they have no idea how everything will play out.
What actually happens is horrific, and sad, but also true to life. Davis doesn’t give everything to her readers, but expects them to do some of their own detective work, and figure things out. Readers will suspect some of the secrets, but will have to uncover some of them as well. The book is part family drama, and part psychological thriller.
The book works because of Davis’ incredible skills as a writer. She has an exquisite sense of pacing and description and creates characters that seem like real people.
Attention to detail helps the story become real and even more chilling. While I was reading the book, I didn’t quite understand what the story was about, but after I’d finished the last page, I found myself reflecting on the story, the characters and its meaning.
September 19, 2012
Based on the shocking lives of the Nova Scotia’s infamous Goler clan the subject matter that forms the basis for author Lauren B. Davis’ latest novel Our Daily Bread is icky to say the least. Child abuse, pedophilia, incest, it’s all served up here, and it’s even topped off with one of the most disturbing real life quotes, pulled directly from the Goler trial transcripts, that you’ll ever have the displeasure of reading. However a funny thing happens on the way to gross town.
Davis could have been content to deliver a highly exploitative novel purely for entertainment’s sake, but wisely she decided to take a different path. The violence and abuse perpetrated by her fictional Erskine clan of mountain folk is ever palpable, but it takes a back seat to Davis’ exploration of the uniquely human concept of moral obligation.
For years the Erskine clan has been living in the mountains, bootlegging alcohol, growing marijuana, abusing their children and each other. Why does no one from any of the surrounding towns step in to try to put a stop to it all? The short answer is that the townsfolk see themselves good God fearing Christian individuals and that they consider those there mountain folk to be awful beings beyond reproach. “They” can’t be helped. “They” are evil. “We” shall pray for their souls. Us and them. A story as old as time.
Still, what makes a person willfully ignore the desperate pleas of another human being in pain? It’s obvious to everyone in the area that what’s occurring on the mountain is flat out wrong, yet no one seems willing to extend a hand and come to the aid of the defenseless children who are forced to suffer at the hands of their family members on a daily basis.
Further complicating matters, Davis introduces Albert Erskine, an intelligent member of the mountain clan who’s been branded as bad, but desperately wants to rise above his upbringing to make something more of his life. When he meets a young teenage boy from town who is also in distress things take a turn for the weird. Could this adult and the teenage boy named Bobby form a friendship based solely on the fact that both of their families are considered “odd?”
Bobby’s mother is an outsider and an adulterer. The latter fact is evident to everyone in town except for Bobby’s father Tom. The high and mighty townsfolk, the “good” Christian people, they love to gossip about anything and everything. As a result Bobby and his younger sister Ivy have a tough go of it. Both are considered outcasts at school and are targeted by bullying children with nothing better to do.
While Bobby’s relief comes in the form of his new friendship with the partially misunderstood Albert, Ivy’s comes from a bond she forms with an elderly shop keeper who bucks the stereotypical definition of what a denizen of the town should be. Dorothy doesn’t attend church, she doesn’t gossip, and she’s got a sympathetic disposition to those who endure life on the mountain. Slowly she becomes the glue the holds Tom, Bobby, and Ivy’s family together, but a miscalculation on her part could tear apart everything she’s worked so hard to maintain.
Our Daily Bread surprises as it oscillates between being a nearly unputdownable page-turner and a heady, slow down and think about what’s occurring and why meditation in almost equal measure. Davis’ writing style is deft and reminiscent of Lisa Unger, minus her penchant for horrible narrative structure. How many people will shy away from this particular novel because of its perceived graphic content? That remains to be seen, but while admittedly there are portions of the text that are difficult to swallow, Our Daily Bread ultimately becomes much greater than the sum of these scattered, horrific moments.
-Reviewed by Gordon Hauptfleisch
Twenty-one year old Albert Erksine grew up in the impoverished and isolated boonies of North Mountain where he received his share of backwoods battering and brutality: incest, sodomy, burns, and lashings. He lives in the small cabin he eventually built on the family compound only so the younger children of the clan now suffering the same fates would have a refuge and perhaps a protector. Meanwhile, he put the rest of his efforts into not perpetuating tradition by becoming one of the Others, the subsistence sisters and brothers, dilapidated mothers and barely-there fathers, the “sex for meth” Uncles. “What more was expected of him?” Albert wondered. “Why did he wake up in the morning feeling like the best thing ahead of him was a long jump and a short rope?”
In the cohesive flow and solidly structured narrative of Lauren B. Davis’ absorbing, strikingly-written, and subtly-honed Our Daily Bread — part family drama, part psychological novel — the author draws on real life events surrounding the Goler Clan in Nova Scotia, where she lived briefly and heard accounts “about a community up on a nearby mountain. They were terrible stories, involving incest, aborted and deformed babies, prostitution, bootlegging and so forth.”
These days the scourge of choice is methamphetamine, not moonshine, and the Erksines and other mountain clans see opportunity shining from a buyer’s headlights on the hairpins. When it comes to the kids and the caught-in-the-crossfire innocent, the good citizens of the valley town below, Gideon, largely pay no heed to the violent and uncompassionate treatment brought to bear by the transgressions of their abusive tweaked-out mountain neighbors, considering them beyond charitable help and redemption. Even the parishioners of influential Church of Christ Returning, seem to cling more to gossip than God.
Nevertheless, Albert retains lifelines with a couple of Gideonites. Widowed antique shop owner Dorothy Carlile has secretly brought food and books for the disadvantaged in the area for years – the books mostly literature pounced upon and devoured by Albert. And Albert has also come to befriend standard-issue disaffected youth Bobby Evans, “middle class townie” but product of an ever more dysfunctional family when his rather lofty and aloof mother inexplicably takes off with a Corkum – a member of another mountain family perhaps a notch or two above an Erksine – leaving his decent and hard-working father Tom shattered but unable to pick up the pieces. Rounding out the Evans family is 10-year-old Amy, also devastated by the desertion, who finds solace and diversion when Dorothy befriends her and has her help out in the antique store.
Our Daily Bread focuses in progressively on North Mountain and Gideon as embodied in the Erksines and the Evans in general, and more specifically and increasingly on Albert and Bobby, who urges for some mountain-smart mentoring. (“Learn to take it, young Bobby, because the shit keeps coming and if you don’t learn to swim in it you’ll drown with a mouth full of crap.”) Indeed, Davis masterfully fuses the seemingly disparate threads she interweaves throughout, picking up the pace, and building the tension, the course of events and the culminating actions of all the main characters, through the decisions and dire straits of Albert and Bobby. It makes for a perilous and precarious set of circumstances – and an escalating page-chaser – as Albert, unable to persuade Bobby that he doesn’t have it so bad at all, finally acquiesces and decides to take him up to the dangerous family compound and to the cabin.
It is at this point that the all-knowing reader is urging Bobby to “be careful what you wish for.” It is also at this point that the all-knowing reader is getting ready to go along for the read — in great anticipation.
Davis propels the loosely us-vs-them plot with an ostensibly effortless narrative of shifting perspectives via alternating main characters that chiefly balances out spot-on characterizations and subplots. Her style also punctuates and complements with some vibrant, elegant or aptly ungainly prose. Whatever the casse, there’s some compelling vividness going on:
“…when the rain had banged on the doors like tiny fists, when the wet had dripped through the roof like tears and the chill had crept in through the chinks like an orphan.”
“…he understood the insidious power of ceaseless, repetitive motion. … the cacophony of forklifts and assembly belts and the endless thwack and whack of rubber mallets on paint lids.”
Particularly evident throughout the Our Daily Bread is Davis’ highly illustrative attention to detail, used especially to good effect in conveying local color. For example, in a sort of trail run for Bobby before the higher ascension to the Erksine heights, he is soaking in the sights of “mountain light” as Bobby takes him to visit a Corkum friend. From the road, though, it all seems like reality is up on cement blocks:
“The houses here were not like the houses in town. The houses here were more or less just shacks on little pieces of lands, yards scattered with car parts, broken furniture, and tires filled the dried out skeletons of geraniums and snap dragons. Some of the shacks were wooden, painted bright colors: pinks and blues, and one purple. Most were unpainted, and one or two were tarpaper over ragged insulation and wood frame. One was burned out, just a couple of walls, and some black earth.”
Wait until we get a gander inside one of these shacks. You’ll love what Lauren B. Davis has done with the place.
Book reviews of mainly modern and contemporary fiction
Saturday, May 19, 2012
‘Our Daily Bread’ by Lauren B. Davis
Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial Canada; 312 pages; 2012.
Lauren B. Davis is a Canadian writer who lives in the United States. Our Daily Bread, her fifth title, was inspired by events surrounding the Goler Clan in Novia Scotia, some of whom were convicted for sexual abuse and incest in the 1980s.
A fictional god-fearing town
The story is set in the fictional bible-thumping town of Gideon, which is dominated by god-fearing folk who attend the Church of Christ Returning.
Here, Dorothy Carlisle, a widow who runs an antique store, shuns efforts by well-meaning, if slightly righteous, neighbours to attend the church. And Tom Evans, a working-class man, keeps his head down, fearful that the locals will discover he is not married to Patty, the much younger woman he lives with, and their two children — Bobby, 15, and Ivy, 10.
Meanwhile, on the nearby mountain, the poverty-stricken Erskine clan eke out an existence by growing cash crops of marijuana and burgling homes and shops in the town. Recently they have turned to “cooking” crystal meth (methamphetamine) in a caravan.
An unlikely friendship
But Albert, 22, the oldest of the huge tribe of children that make up the clan, wants nothing to do with his elders — or “The Others” as they are known — because of the way in which he and his younger siblings are treated. (There are hints of incest, but the author refrains from going into detail.) He has built his own “one-door, two-window cabin” in the woods to escape their prying eyes and spends a lot of time reading novels or cruising around Gideon in his truck.
It is during one of Albert’s drives around town that he meets Tom’s son, Bobby. The pair develop a close if somewhat unlikely friendship, which is kept secret from both of their families. And it is this friendship which sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in an explosive finale.
An effortless, absorbing read
From the first page of Our Daily Bread I knew I was going to love this book. The clean rhythmic prose made it an effortless read, but it was the fully realised characters, the careful plotting and the slow-building tension that made it an absorbing one.
The novel is cleverly constructed: the narrative is told in the third person throughout, but from the perspective of each of the main characters, so that we get a glimpse of their often secretive worlds and the ways in which their dreams and desires do not match reality. Davis expertly intertwines their lives and has them intersect and rub against one another, as one would expect in a small town where everyone’s business is common knowledge.
The characterisation is particularly superb — Erskine skilfully gets inside the heads of everyone from a young girl to an elderly widow, from a teenage boy to a working-class man, and makes them all feel flesh-and-blood real, with flaws and emotions and personal troubles. Each person is an “outsider” — Ivy is being bullied at school, Bobby is uncommunicative and realises his parent’s marriage is in trouble, Patty does not love Tom and is having an affair, Tom is desperately in love with Patty but knows that whatever he does for her is never enough, Dorothy hates the town gossips and rejects their so-called Christian values, and Albert wants to escape the clan but knows they will kill him if he dares leave.
Complex psychological tale
This combination of characters provides a complex psychological narrative. Coupled with the real sense of place that resonates off the page — of both the mountain and the town — Our Daily Bread is one of those stories that completely draws you in to another world.
It’s dark, without being claustrophobic, and redemptive without being cloying. Davis writes about disturbing subjects in a sensitive manner; there’s nothing sordid or sensational here and in many ways the novel’s great power comes from the things she doesn’t say rather than the things she does.
But while it deals with dark subject matter it is not without lighter moments. I particularly enjoyed Dorothy’s wicked sense of humour revealed in her interior monologues in which she pokes fun at the town gossips and their pious ways.
“Hello Mabel.” Dorothy did not rise. Oh, Lord, she prayed, please don’t start her talking about the church. Dorothy was still not quite over the unsettling image of Mabel McQuaid calling out to the Lord and babbling in a rhythmic jibber-jabber she referred to as speaking-in-tongues. Mabel, in fact, had not been at all pleased yesterday when, after the service, Dorothy asked her why angels didn’t just speak in a language one could understand?
Ultimately, Our Daily Bread is a story about the danger of communities collectively burying their heads in the sand, of secrets, of ignorance, of inequality, of prejudice — and of the power of unlikely friendships.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Our Daily Bread
By Lauren B. Davis
Published by Wordcraft of Oregon (October 2011)
Reviewed by Clare MacQueen (Associate Editor, Serving House Journal)
Bestselling novelist Lauren B. Davis balances horror, humor, and humanity throughout the pages of her latest book, Our Daily Bread, which was announced just last Saturday as one of The Globe and Mail’s best books of 2011. A gifted writer, Davis describes violence and despair without bludgeoning her readers, thereby creating an unforgettable read, frightening at times, but as enlightening and redemptive as it is disturbing. So good, in fact, that this reviewer read the book twice, to savor again gems of prose like these:
“It was one of those brilliant first days of true spring when the world heaved itself out of the long silver somnolence of winter.” (p. 56)
“His clothes were pushed to one side. And on her side: empty hangers, skeletons where the flesh of cloth had been.” (p. 122)
“Tom’s thoughts were dust devils, whirlwinds sucking up dirt from below and shooting it up in a fierce scatter of possibilities.” (p. 157)
Many books tell us of unfathomable abuse of the powerless, particularly children, against backdrops of extremity: poverty, ignorance, hypocrisy, ostracism. What sets Our Daily Bread apart? Though inspired by the real-life Goler clan of Nova Scotia, this novel spares readers the gratuitous salaciousness found in certain memoirs and documentaries. Indeed, there’s far more narrative about the daily lives of “the townies,” the Gideonites, than about the demented Erskine clan of North Mountain.
Spellbinding chapters that describe the brutal lives on “the mountain” begin and end this novel, sandwiching narratives about townspeople like Tom and Patty Evans and their two children, Ivy and Bobby, and a matronly widow named Dorothy Carlisle. The moral center of the story, Dorothy finds herself mentoring and protecting 10-year-old Ivy, despite her unwillingness to become involved with “children and their war games.” Ivy’s steadfast father, Tom, struggles stoically to take care of his family and to understand Patty’s restlessness. Why does she continue to reject his marriage proposals?
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Bobby hooks up with an unlikely counselor in crime—Albert Erskine, a 22-year-old burglar and dealer of the best weed around—yet conceals the friendship from his parents and swears Ivy to secrecy as well.
Several of Gideon’s residents are hooked on what the Erskine clan is selling: moonshine, marijuana, and meth. Not surprisingly, the children on the mountain suffer most. Albert is no longer a child, yet his uncles remind him with their shotguns, fists, and boots that Erskines don’t talk and they don’t leave. Townies refer to Erskines as “those people,” lost for generations, so there’s nothing can be done about it—except to isolate “Satan’s shit” on North Mountain away from the pious residents below.
Events escalate and the story zooms in on Albert as he tries to protect Bobby and the children, who are all, boys and girls alike, in danger of being raped and murdered by fiends, the Erskine uncles maddened by meth. The book becomes a riveting page turner as it rushes toward its fiery and surprising climax.
(Our Daily Bread, 258 pages, ISBN: 978-1877655722)
THE HORROR ON THE MOUNTAIN
May 24, 2012
Reviewed by Charles Mandel
Forget Stephen King. You want scary? You want disturbing? You want black?
Then you need to read Lauren B. Davis’s bleak and heart-rending novel, Our Daily Bread.
The terrible story of Nova Scotia’s Goler clan inspired the Montreal-born novelist, who now calls Princeton, New Jersey home. In particular, Davis cites David Cruise and Alison Griffth’s non-fiction account of incest and cruelty, On South Mountain – The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan.
By now, you may be gathering that Our Daily Bread isn’t exactly a happy novel. To be sure, Davis draws us into a horrible world, where meth-addled adults routinely abuse their young and then leave them to fend for themselves. In her book, this is the Erskine clan, who live up on the mountain.
Down below is another world entirely, the small town of Gideon, where the middle-class folks turn a blind eye to what takes place above them.
But the two worlds come into contact when Albert, the eldest of the Erskine children, befriends a younger boy from the town, Bobby.
In a neat parallel, Bobby comes from a troubled home. Bobby’s mother has left his father, Tom, who is not handling the situation well, while his sister Ivy is being bullied at school. Given his father’s distraction, Bobby is free to come and go as he chooses, leaving him plenty of time to hang out with Albert and indulge in questionable activities.
Things really come to a head, though, when after much pestering, Albert finally agrees to take Bobby up to the mountain, in the process endangering the two boys and Tom.
Davis’s novel moves at a brisk clip, alternating between the mountain characters and those of the town. While much of the horror comes from the atrocities visited upon the children – hinted at more than described, although at points the book is uncomfortably graphic – the real point of this book is to make us wonder how the townspeople could so easily ignore the abuse taking place so near to them.
The Erskines might be portrayed as mindless, cruel, inbred hillbillies, but it’s the good folks of Gideon who emerge as the real monsters in Davis’s grim and exceedingly well-written book.
“Our Daily Bread is a compelling narrative set in a closely observed, sometimes dark, but ultimately life-enhancing landscape. Lauren B. Davis’ vivid prose and empathetically developed characters will remain in the reader’s mind long after the final chapter has been read. “
—Jane Urquhart, prize winning author of Away and The Stone Carvers
“Rendered with gorgeous prose, this compact, fast-moving novel features an astonishing range of tones, from hope to heartbreak, from black humor to white-knuckle terror. It will stay with you long after the covers are closed.”
—Dexter Palmer, author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion
“Wow! From the first chapter of Our Daily Bread, ‘up here where the view was like heaven and the living was like hell,’ I was hooked – by the characters, by the flow, by the clean, rhythmic prose. This is a novel that will make you want to do something about poverty, hunger, ignorance and the people who are subject to such conditions. An outstanding, absorbing, page-turning novel!”
—Thomas E. Kennedy, author of The Copenhagen Quartet
“I’ll never forget this book, the stunning power of the descriptions, the attention to detail, the riveting plot, the fully-realized characters—this is storytelling at it’s very best.”
—Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie and The Holy Book of the Beard