‘Our Daily Bread’ by Lauren B. Davis

Our_Daily_Bread

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.

It was long listed for the 2012 Giller Prize.

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12 thoughts on “‘Our Daily Bread’ by Lauren B. Davis

  1. Great review! Sounds like a fabulous novel. I’ve been looking for a quality read – I’ll order it today. Many thanks.

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  2. I like the cover as well, it invites me to pick up the novel and get into it. Some covers are so drab they don’t do a book justice.

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  3. Powerful review, thanks. Love your comments about character development and the theme of unlikely friendships developing sounds very intriguing. This will be my next read.

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  4. Thanks for all your comments. This book proves it’s always worth spending your last few holiday $$ on books at the airport: this was a whim purchase and it really paid off 🙂 Am keen to read more by this author now.

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  5. Kim, I agree with you, I’m always on the lookout for a novel that will capture my attention. The cover has a lot to do with it, as does the text describing what the book is about. It either draws me in and I have to buy it, or it doesn’t and I put it back on the shelf. Sounds like that’s what must have happened for you.
    I should also mention that I really like your reviews, and you’ve done a very good job of highlighting some very appealing aspects of Our Daily Bread.
    RGB

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  6. Thanks for your lovely comment, RGB. This particular review seems to have attracted quite a few people who have never commented here before, which is great. I trust that anyone who reads this book will very much appreciate it.

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  7. Thanks for recommending this, Kim. I just finished reading it this evening (the original Wordcraft of Oregon edition is available from Book Depository, even if the cover isn’t as evocative as the one above).
    Anyway, I thought it was superb – really powerful stuff and so carefully balanced: partway through I was wishing the churchgoers like Mabel or the Reverend Hickman played a bigger part, but no, the sermon extracts and the undercurrents in the community are just enough – too much of the religious element would have made it far too black and white, too good vs. evil. Likewise the way that Davis suggests what is going on up on the mountain (a glimpse through a window, a sight of a cigarette-burned back), even in the trial, is perfect in its subtlety and makes it much more horrific.
    And the characters! So wonderfully written, I loved all of them I think. I also really like the way she deals with the theme of The Other, Us and Them, not just in the obvious relationship between town and mountain but in the ‘unlikely friendship’ which you describe between Bobby and Albert, which might also be described as a mutual dependency I think. For much of the book it feels like Bobby is being led astray and I think Bobby and Albert both need the other for their own reasons, which is also reflected in the relationships between other characters – Tom and Patty, Dorothy and Ivy. Such an enjoyable book.

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