Our Daily Bread, by Lauren B. Davis

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The conflict between the heathen mountaineer clan — criminal, incestuous, child-abusing — and god-fearing townies — upright, uptight, judgmental — is not just a convenient fictional device, it is all too often a feature of the real world. Indeed, author Lauren Davis says in an afterword to Our Daily Bread that the novel was inspired by time she spent in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s when she heard stories of the Goler Clan, a tale that has already inspired a non-fiction account, On South Mountain: The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan (1998).

Davis does includes examples from both those extremes to set a context for her account. The clan here are the Erskines of North Mountain, who have recently abandoned their homebrew operation in favor of producing methamphetamine. Since the Erskines have always been heavy consumers of their own product, the new enterprise means that both the stupor of the adults and their abuse of the children has increased. On the other side of the mountain/townie divide, the author frequently introduces chapters with excerpts from fire and brimstone sermons delivered between 1852 and 2009 at the Church of Christ Returning in the nearby town of Gideon. For a century and a half, the pastors have regarded the mountain crew as destined for hell — even though the “church” is now located in a former warehouse, that message has not changed.

What gives distinction to Davis’ work, however, is that she uses those conflicting poles only for context. Her central cast, all of whom become well developed characters, consists of a number of individuals who are located somewhere along the spectrum between the poles — closer to one end than the other, for sure, but not really at home in either world.

Albert Erskine, 22, is the breakaway from the mountain clan. He left the “adults” compound there a few years back and built his own ramshackle cabin. While he is a reader, unlike anyone else there, he has no trade — he gets by growing and selling marijuana, a substance that, illegal as it might be, causes less damage than what the elders used to produce. He is on his way back from tending his marijuana patch when he discovers the new enterprise:

The rusty, pearly-yellow trailer tilted on its blocks. The windows were covered with tin foil. The breeze shifted and the scent of something sickly sweet wafted toward him. And something else…ammonia? Jesus. Albert crept to a stand of trees closer to the trailer to get a better look. A small pile of rubbish lay half-hidden under some branches. Used coffee filters. Part of an old car battery. Drain cleaner. Dozens of empty cold remedy packets. If things had been bad on the mountain before, Albert suspected they were about to get worse. Much worse. Meth made everything worse.

As much as Albert would like to escape to the broader world, he cannot — he can leave the compound but he can’t leave the mountain, because it is the only world he knows.

His townie “counterpart” is Bobby Evans, 15-year-old son of Tom and Patty. Bobby’s parents (who themselves aren’t part of the church crowd) have been going through a rough patch — perhaps “decade” would be a more accurate description — so in addition to the usual teenage angst, Bobby has “home” issues and is looking for escape. He thinks he may have found it when he runs into Albert, dozing on a warm slab of rock by the river:

Albert took another drag off his cigarette and Bobby did the same, inhaling this time and managing not to cough. Albert sat up, pitched a small stone in the water, making it skip five times before it sank. Bobby pitched a stone as well but it sank after three skips and he tried another but it merely plonked into the water. Albert considered the boy, who was now picking the moss off the side of the rock and rolling bits between his fingers. Big hands, but narrow wrists. Growing into his bones, yet with a ways to go. Could be thirteen, but was probably older. He was a nice-looking kid, even if he was too pale. Nervous, though. There was an air of vulnerability about him.

Not all mentoring relationships are positive, as we shall find out. Davis, however, introduces another one that is — Bobby’s 10-year-old sister, Ivy, takes refuge in the antique shop of Dorothy Carlisle when she is being bullied by a couple of school mates (pretty much the whole town except for Bobby, Ivy and their dad thinks Patty Evans is sleeping around). Dorothy is a widower approaching senior citizenship who normally has no time for children; she takes a shine to Ivy, bereft of both friends and functioning parents, and soon becomes a substitute mother/grandmother who finally puts warm human contact into the young girl’s life.

Dorothy, in fact, is the link who touches all these “in-between” people. The reason that Albert Erskine is a reader is that some years ago Dorothy discovered that he liked books — so in addition to the boxes of clothing and food for the children that she and her husband regularly left by the side of the road up to the compound, she started leaving books as well. She’s continued the practice since her husband died. And while she doesn’t know Bobby well, she knows enough of him to be concerned that he is chumming around with Albert, as much as she might care about the Erskine boy. And when Patty does a runner, leaving Tom and the kids behind, with Tom predictably taking to the bottle, it is Dorothy who intervenes to try to introduce some stability into the family.

It is no spoiler to say that the situation that the “in-between” group finds themselves in twixt mountain clan and townies does get resolved and, yes, violence is involved. In a novel where the real strength is the depth of characterization Davis achieves, that calls for some licence on the reader’s part.

And that is not the only licence that needs to be extended. One particular example: beyond the obvious “locator” function of the sermon excerpts, they serve little purpose. As the novel went on, I increasingly found myself merely skimming them, never a good sign. And a number of the events that are needed late in the book to shift from character to resolving plot also put strain on credibility.

Our Daily Bread made the Giller longlist, but failed to move on to the shortlist — for what it is worth, I think the flaws that I mention were probably the reason. Despite the fact that it isn’t really my kind of book, I did find it well worth the read — I would have ranked it ahead of two of the books that did make the shortlist (Inside and Ru if you are wondering which ones).

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2 Responses to “Our Daily Bread, by Lauren B. Davis”

  1. BuriedInPrint Says:

    I really think this novel deserved to be on the shortlist too (and, yes, I probably would have asked which two, because, you see, you mention a number and then one *must* ask, really); I think it’s quite interesting that you would have found a spot for it there too, even though it’s not your kind of book.

    Admittedly, I skimmed and skipped many of the sermon excerpts too, but then I read through them straight at the end (I skimmed all the poetry in Possession and then did the same thing…I should learn from this, shouldn’t I, and simply read them in the moment?) and I felt they were deliberately sculpted/excerpted after all, adding a sense of timelessness to the struggle at the very least; I don’t want to say much more than that, because it would risk spoilers, but I think they also locate the need for change in the individual (rather than in an external organization) because the old pattern of simply demonizing the “other” doesn’t lead to change. One of the plotlines does this too, of course, and I think that character actually attends some of these sermons (if I remember correctly), but I felt the epigraphs added a slightly different slant after all.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I’m glad the sermon excerpts worked for you, however you chose to approach them — I’ll confess I have managed to forget them completely since reading the book, although I remember other parts of it quite well.

    And I too had the same problems with the poem in Possession — I’ve read the novel twice and my only memory of the poetry is that it is very long. I guess there are some devices that just don’t work with me.

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