Lauren Davis’ novel, Our Daily Bread, opens with an excerpt from a sermon, delivered in Gideon in 1794, which directs the righteous in attendance to cast out the wicked.
Send them to the mountains, “the wild places of their wickedness”, the reverend advises.
The final chapter in the novel opens with another excerpt from a sermon, delivered more than 200 years later, containing the same direction.
Root out the evil, keep the town pure: the world is divided into the righteous and the wicked as these men see it.
Lauren B. Davis does not share this worldview; her view of the world is more complex.
This is evident in her development of the “righteous” characters who populate Gideon and the “wicked” mountain folk who live outside the town.
“My kind of people? Your kind of people? What does that mean, exactly?”
Dorothy asks that question of the Sherriff in Gideon; it’s not a question that many townspeople overtly ask, but it’s one which lurks beneath their daily existence.
(It reminds me of the epigram about there being two kinds of people in this world, those who think there are two kinds of people in this world, and everybody else. Dorothy gives a voice to “everybody else”.)
Our Daily Bread tells the stories of several people who dwell on either side of the line which is perceived to divide the folks in town from the mountain folk: some who are imprisoned by it, some who profit by it, some who straddle it, some who deliberately blur it, and some who dream of life on its other side.
The story begins with Albert, an Erskine who lives on the mountain, who struggles to live “beyond” that. He makes a friend of Bobby Evans, who is younger than he, and that alliance cinches the threads of this novel together.
“It was a question he asked too often, this great what if? And it was always prodded along by the desire to get the hell out – the great lurching, gut-squalling impulse to grab a couple of kids and run for the city.”
(And it is gut-squalling; the first chapter sketches a life that many readers will consider unthinkable, but it was inspired by stories that the author read and heard about survivors of the abuse experienced by members of the Goler clan in Nova Scotia. You, too, will want to run. Not only to the end of the novel, but to Lauren B. Davis’ backlist. She tells this story in such a way that the reader cannot look away, neither from what’s on the page, nor from what’s within.)
“Why do you think I don’t take you up to my place? I got some stories to tell you, young Bobby, stories that will make you glad you got the family you got. But more important than that, I’m going teach you how to live beyond them all. That’s right. You are going to learn to live in spite of them, not just to spite them, if you know what I mean.”
There are overt differences between Bobby’s life and Albert’s, but there are also similarities; the struggles that characters face, on and off the mountain, are not all that different.
This passage is not pulled from Albert’s sections of the novel, but it could have been:
“Whatever it was gave way softly, almost gently, and he felt like he was bleeding inside, his breath turning to blood in a broken vessel, leaking away down into his boots. It occurred to him he might very well die of love.”
Nor is this observation made of Albert, but it, too, speaks to a truth about Albert Erskine’s life:
“Once you had been betrayed, not only by the woman you loved, but by your own perceptions, how could you trust yourself to make any decisions at all, about anything? It was paralysis – physical, emotional, spiritual.”
On the surface, Our Daily Bread is a gripping plot-caked story; beneath the surface lurks an awareness of divisive lines drawn and observed, but, on occasion, replaced by connections that resonate and strengthen.
For a jury who prizes quality storytelling, Our Daily Bread would be a dynamic choice; you can read it for plot, but its success depends on characterization. In the hands of a less experienced author, such a story could sink into sensationalism, but language, structure and voice all support this novel’s solid substructure, echoing a theme which is vitally relevant to the reader’s world.
Chronological, kaleidoscopic. The bulk of the narrative is focussed on Albert, but Bobby and his sister Ivy play significant roles, along with their parents and Dorothy has ties to all of them; the connections between characters are drawn with dotted lines, first, which is a little overwhelming, but they are soon filled in, emphasizing that the lines between are not necessarily drawn as we have been taught, and that they can be as much about joining as dividing.
Evocative. “Near the top of North Mountain a tumbledown shed leaned against an old lightning-struck oak at the edge of a raggedy field”
Direct. “Town leaks gossip like a rusty bucket.”
Good balance between dialogue and narrative. Just enough explanation to keep the reader attentive to overarching themes without losing track of the characters’ credibility.
“The mountain slopes were a mass of hickory, chestnut, beech, cedar, spruce, and pitch pine, but now and again they passed through clear-cut openings. Stubbled and broken earth, these gaps looked as though a cunning, specifically-targeted tornado had roared through. Distant stands of trees bore silent witness to their fallen brothers. Chasms of red-clay earth were wounds where the run-off, with no tree roots to absorb it, had formed channels, deep and ever-changing, as though dragons had dug their great claws through the ground.”
Rooted in curiosity and compassion, but superficially it’s a page-turner. “For a moment their eyes held, and what she saw in Albert’s eyes jolted Ivy, for it wasn’t at all what she expected. It wasn’t scary at all. It was far away, and kind of locked down, and unutterably sad.”
Without a sense of connection to Albert’s character at the beginning of the novel, Our Daily Bread could be read compulsively, simply out of the desire to find out “what happens”, but its lingering power is in the “locked down” and “unutterably sad” parts.
The phrase “backwoods noir” intrigues you immediately. You appreciate an ensemble cast. The woods is a place you know, literally and metaphorically. Your tolerance for gut-squalling is high. You love a Little-Book-That-Could story (this was published by a small indie press in the US, before it was picked up in Canada, before it was longlisted for the Giller). You work to un-learn what you’ve been taught about the “other”; you struggle to hope.
I’m reading my way through the 2012 Giller Prize longlist: have you read this novel, or are you thinking about reading it?