Where is hell, exactly?
Up the mountain, where it has always been. The road there takes your children first.
Our Daily Bread, by Lauren B. Davis, is all about that road. Signs blare from the beginnings of many chapters, sermon excerpts from the Church of Christ Returning. But it's not all fire and brimstone. Much of the scenery looks hauntingly familiar, and that's the power of a literary novel detailing, almost lovingly, every good intention.
In the balance lie the contested souls of the troubled Evans family, especially those of little Ivy and her teenage brother Bobby. Bobby falls under the influence of Albert Erskine, a young buck from a notorious mountain clan who mentors Bobby down the path to smoking, drinking, stealing – and heading for worse. Albert has broken away, sort of, from the unholy grip of his own people, and lives in a shack on the edge of the main compound. His personal code, built up "slap by slap, bruise by bruise," begins with an injunction against sleeping in your own vomit, and "You don't shack up with a woman who tosses her used sanitary napkins in the stove..."
Bobby's parents are coming apart and so Ivy, too, is vulnerable. But she drifts into the orbit of an angel, Dorothy, the proprietor of an antique shop who keeps a proper wall on the world. Ivy's apprenticeship couldn't be in starker contrast to her brother's: polishing silver, preparing tea, dusting the lacquer from long ago.
If this contest sounds a bit like Bambi Meets Godzilla – well, it is all to Davis's credit that the outcome seems in doubt. One of the strongest chapters in a novel full of remarkable moments concerns the possibility of salvation offered by a decent, home-cooked meal. Tom Evans's wife runs off, and Evans collapses into depression. Dorothy, against all her instincts to maintain reserve, hurries over with a prepared dish. The smell of the chicken, the ritual of setting the table, the calm, quiet decency of the gesture, feels for a time almost enough to right the course of this lost family.
But hell beckons. Despite the sermon excerpts, there is little overt religiosity. None of the main characters are churchgoers. The thrust of the sermons has to do with shunning evil, staying away from those who deal with the devil. Slowly it becomes clear that hell is allowed to thrive precisely because it is relegated to the mountain.
That hell, like Sodom and Gomorrah, can't be looked at too directly. So Davis has us hole up in Albert's cabin where we can smell the meth labs, the urine and feces, and see the lights of the cars of townies coming for drugs, and watch them go, and later we hear the screams from within the clan because of what the damned adults are doing to their kids.
These horrors feel real not because they are based on "true events" – as they are, inspired by the depredations of Nova Scotia's Goler clan exposed in the 1980s – but because they're written real, with a level of detail that puts us in the beating hearts of imperilled souls. No fact-filled journalistic account, no matter how lurid, could do the same, because we've already lived the breakdown of Tom Evans's marriage, we've already sat for dinner with a genuinely Christian woman who, out of common decency, offers to do everything she can to see the family through their wretchedness.
Dorothy crosses a line. She shows up on the road to the mountain of hell and offers to walk us back down. Our Daily Bread does the same in simple, brave, powerful scenes, skillfully written with an anger no less effective for being tempered – scenes that sit with the soul long after the book is closed.
Alan Cumyn's latest novel, Tilt, is about another kind of heaven and hell: tumultuous adolescence.