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 puts 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 (due Oct. 1) — 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 approaching from headlights on the hairpins. When it comes to the kids and other caught-in-the-crossfire innocent, the good citizens of the valley town below, Gideon, largely pay no heed to the violent and compassionless treatment brought to bear by the transgressions of their abusive tweaked-out backwoods neighbors, considering them beyond charitable help and redemption. Even the parishioners of the 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.