Our Daily Bread by Lauren B. Davis

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This is the second book by Lauren B. Davis that I have read recently, the other one being The Empty Room, which I read for my CanLit Project.  Both books are written about very tough subjects, but they have both managed to suck me in and not let me go until the end.   I thought Our Daily Bread was riveting; I couldn’t put it down.  Even though there were many times I found myself cringing or feeling slightly ill, I had to keep reading.  Luckily, there were also parts of the book that brought relief.  Despite the difficult subject matter,  the book is written with sensitivity and compassion with the clear intent to make the reader care.

Our Daily Bread was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller prize, and it is inspired by the true story of the Goler Clan in Nova Scotia, although, it is important to say, that it is not about them.

There are two connecting storylines happening in this book.  One is about the Erskine family, who live on the mountain.  Everyone in the town knows who they are, but they stay away and avert their eyes.  The Erskines are mountain and they keep to themselves.

It’s the mountain.  What can you do?/  What can you do?/  Nothing./  What can you expect of people who live like that?/  Nothing./  People like that?  Those people./  Them.

The other story is about the Evans family.  Tom and his wife Patty, their children (15-year-old Bobby and 10-year-old Ivy), and a concerned neighbour, Dorothy Carlisle.  Ivy and Bobby are being bullied at school, their mother is not from this town; she’s different.  One day, Ivy walks into Dorothy’s antiques shop and finds some solace there.  Bobby finds escape from his life through his new friendship with Albert Erskine, who is 7 years older than Bobby and has many dark secrets of his own.

Albert is not quite the same as The Others on the mountain.  He desperately wants out, but the best he can do right now is try to keep his distance.  He tries to do what he can to help the other, younger children on the mountain (his brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews).  He lets them take refuge in his little cabin if they need it, gives them food and tips on how to steer clear of the adults.  Albert’s new friendship with Bobby makes him feel good, a little bit normal, and nice to have someone look up to him.  But Bobby wants to come up to Albert’s place on the mountain, and Albert doesn’t know how to make him understand how bad it is and how good Bobby has it.

Erskines, for better or worse stuck together.  They’d drilled the code into his head since before he could remember.  Nobody talks.  Nobody leaves.  Seems it doesn’t matter how big Albert got, how grown he was, Harold would always be bigger, and meaner.

He regarded her, skinny and defiant, practically feral, and so smart.  What would she be like, if she’d been raised in some other place?

Albert lives by his code:

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.

Tom Evans met Patty in New York and convinced her to come home with him.  The town talked and there were rumours, but Tom ignored it all and loved her and their children fiercely.  When Patty leaves him, he is devastated.

“How can I ever trust myself again?” he said.  And there was the crux of it really.  Once you had been betrayed, not only by the woman you loved, but by your owns perceptions, how could you trust yourself to make any decisions at all, about anything?  It was paralysis- physical, emotional, spiritual.

Tom becomes distant and depressed.  His children find their own refuges.  Bobby starts spending even more time with Albert, but luckily Ivy has found a safe place to go with Dorothy.  Against her wishes, Dorothy feels duty-bound to stick her nose into the Evans’ business.  In the end, this leads to Tom finding out that Bobby is up on the mountain with Albert, resulting in Tom’s efforts to put his family back together, and leading him into unimaginable danger and discovery.

The scream floated in the air as though it had physical form, like a trapped ghost hanging in the branches of the trees.

His fear snapped and snarled like a dog at his heels.

Lauren B. Davis lived in Nova Scotia  for a while in the early 1970s.  While there, she heard terrible stories of a community of people living in the mountains.  These stories she had been hearing  turned out to be true.  This is her reaction to the scandal, and the consequent thought processes that eventually led to her book:

“I was horrified but also mystified.  If all those rumors had been true, why had it taken so long for someone to intervene?  The answer seemed to be that the people who lived on the mountain had, for generations, been considered “Those People,” as in “What do you expect from those people?””

“The extreme marginalization of the community and the terrible repercussions of ostracism haunted me.  The episode seemed the perfect framework for exploring how such ordinary people could do such dreadful things, or permit such dreadful things to continue.”

“I was trying to explore what happens when we view our neighbours as “The Other” and also to look at the transforming power of unlikely friendships.”

The friendship between Ivy Evans and Dorothy Carlisle is an example of this transforming power.  Ivy’s character is based on some of the author’s own experiences with marginalization.

“That summer, a lady who owned a little antique shop near my house let me hang around the store.  I’m sure she never knew how much that meant to me.  It was a refuge from loneliness and bullying, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Dorothy’s character is the compassionate voice in the novel.  She shuns gossip, befriends Albert in a way and sees his potential.  She speaks against the prevailing religious beliefs of the townspeople regarding the mountain people.  She becomes Ivy’s safe haven, and helps to mend the Evans’ family.

When asked which character is the most intriguing for her, the author answers:

“I keep coming back to Albert.  There’s something about a person struggling against such great odds, with so little help, that just pierces me.  What might have been?  I keep asking.  What might have been?”

Things this book has made me think about:

*What can we do to prevent the marginalization of others?  How can we keep our mind closed to stereotypes and prejudices, and open to differences and people who are need of a friend?

*Is it in our nature to avoid/ignore things and people that make us uncomfortable?  And, if so, what can we do to make it easier for us to face them instead?

*Can reading books about subjects that disturb us, sadden us, make us uncomfortable help us to be able to empathize with real people who might be in these kinds of situations?   Maybe this is one of the reasons we like to read sad/disturbing books (besides the fact that sometimes it’s just fascinating to read stories that are so far from what we have experienced in our own lives).  Maybe it helps to open our minds and allow us to feel compassion, resulting in the desire to help others.  So, this leads me to wonder:

*Are people who read more, more likely to be compassionate, caring, open-minded, accepting, etc.?  And do people who are judgmental and close-minded need to read more books?

*I am someone who has been lucky enough to say that I have had a good life with very few major struggles.  But, I wonder, if I had experienced some of the sadness and suffering of these characters have, would I be able to read books like this, or would I avoid them?

10 thoughts on “Our Daily Bread by Lauren B. Davis

    • Naomi says:

      Not exactly terrifying. I just didn’t want anyone going into it thinking it would be light reading. I guess I accomplished that. But it’s good!

  1. Cecilia says:

    I really like how you list questions at the end. I love stories that make me think, even if they end up being heavy and difficult to read. I did have some struggles in my life, but I feel that is what drives me to continue reading difficult stories. I find it therapeutic and satisfying and validating. On the other hand, my brother says that he likes stories that are unrealistic – fantasy, sic fi, etc. He is not interested in anything deep or depressing or that is too close to real life. He says he likes to escape when he reads.

    Did you see this article last year on literary fiction and empathy? http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/

    • Naomi says:

      What a great article! Thanks for sending me the link! I love that fiction has been shown to be good for us, like a healthy diet and some exercise. I would like to see them do a study on grouchy, judgmental people. Make them read literary fiction and see if they improve. Maybe it’s the cure for them!

      That’s a good point about a book feeling therapeutic if it’s about a topic similar to someone’s personal experience. I hadn’t thought of that. Even though, like I said, I haven’t had any major struggles in my life, we all have small ones, and even those ones are satisfying to read about. It lets you know that you are not alone. Thanks for commenting, Cecilia!

      • Cecilia says:

        It’s funny you mention about the judgmental people who might need a little fiction in their lives…when that NYT article came out I had posted it on my Facebook page, and a non-reader FB friend commented that books prevented people from living life. He was very opinionated about people who read books. I was open-minded about it, telling him I could see his point. It was interesting that it was I, the fiction reader, who said that, whereas he had that single-mindedness about why books are bad for people. He’d proven the whole point of the article with his comment!

        I definitely agree that we all have struggles, simply by going through life!

  2. vsk8s says:

    I’ve read these two books, also (and several others by Ms. Davis). Naomi’s question about whether reading books can help you empathize reminded me of a tidbit I came across some time ago from science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold. She mentioned reading an interview with a forensic pathologist who said he’d “never gone into a bad crime scene in any house where there were a lot of books.” She speculated that a book is a window to another person’s mind and increases empathy, “the closest thing we have to telepathy.” Another interpretation would be that books show people many ways to be a hero, other than taking a gun into a crowded shopping mall.

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