I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how prolific and diverse Joyce Carol Oates is, and for me, many of her books have either been completely “off” (them, You Must Remember This, as examples) or they are completely “on” (The Gravedigger’s Daughter, The Falls, We Were the Mulvaney’s). I also have quite a few on the TBR List (The Accursed, Mudwoman, A Fair Maiden). Knowing this, it was perhaps the biggest reason for wanting to go forward with reading Daddy Love. The description and subject of Daddy Love is definitely not for the squeamish and is a parent’s worst nightmare. Its subject matter is not generally something I would willfully subject myself to reading about. However, I was intrigued as it is written by JCO. How would this novel go for me? Off or On?
We first received the title from NetGalley but it was in that dreaded PDF format! I then saw that Audiobook JukeBox was offering it from Highbridge Audio for their Solid Gold Reviewers program. Okay, perhaps listening to it might allow me to stomach the subject matter? (Elizabeth thought I was right off my head when I said I was going to read this, by the way.) I am thinking that it may be a better choice to listen to it? 6 1/2 hours on only 6 CDs seemed reasonable enough to handle. Right?
Here is what Daddy Love offers its readers: Dinah Whitcomb seemingly has everything. A loving and successful husband, and a smart, precocious young son named Robbie. One day, their worlds are shattered when Dinah is attacked and Robbie is taken in a mall parking lot. Dinah, injured, attempts to follow, but is run over by the kidnapper’s van, mangling her body nearly beyond repair.
The kidnapper, a part-time Preacher named Chester Cash, calls himself Daddy Love, as he has abducted, tortured, and raped several young boys into being his lover and as well as his ‘son’. He confines Robbie in a device called an Wooden Maiden, in essence a small coffin, and renamed him ‘Gideon’. Daddy Love slowly brainwashes ‘Gideon’ into believing that he is Daddy Love’s real son, and any time the boy resists or rebels it is met with punishment beyond his wildest nightmares.
As Dinah recovers from her wounds, her world and her marriage struggle to exist every day. Though it seems hopeless, she keeps a flicker of hope alive that her son is still alive.
As Robbie grows older, he becomes more aware of just how monstrous Daddy Love truly is. Though as a small boy he as terrified of what might happen if he disobeyed Daddy Love, Robbie begins to realize that the longer he stays in the home of this demon, the greater chance he’ll end up like Daddy Love’s other ‘sons’ who were never heard from again. Somewhere within this tortured young boy lies a spark of rebellion…and soon he sees just what lengths he must go to in order to have any chance at survival. (From Goodreads)
(So perhaps you see why Elizabeth thought I needed my head examined right?) Christine Williams is the narrator and I fully believe now that she was the intended and best choice. I’m not sure what the process was to audition for this, or if that was what was actually done, but I’m wondering if her narration and its style was fully intended. Christine speaks in a calm, assured, almost hypnotic voice. It’s this hypnotic quality that I’m thinking was the full intention here. In honesty, I believe many times I fell under in to a hypnotic trance while driving and listening to these CDs. If you combine this trance-inducing narration with Oates constant repetition (Mommy, Robbie, Daddy, The Preacher, Daddy Love, all which is repeated and used over and over and over again. At the start of the sentence, in the middle of the sentence, consistently and repeatedly repeated) it’s almost as if you are being pulled in to a trance and hypnotised. “Take Mommy’s hand Robbie. Robbie took Mommy’s hand. Robbie held firm to Mommy’s hand. Robbie liked when Mommy held his hand…” “Daddy Love took his time. Daddy Love does not like disobedience. Daddy Love makes sure he takes his time.”
Joyce Carol Oates was nothing short of extremely methodical and detailed, most especially when describing Daddy Love, his thinking, his actions, his justification for doing what he does. The story begins in Yipsilanti and Detroit, Michigan so I heard many familiar landmarks, streets and settings. Was I sending numerous emails to my fellow hoarders daily calming myself through this horrific tale? Was I 100% invested in this story? Was I gripping the steering wheel in sheer terror for Gideon and walking quite shakily to my office each morning? Is Daddy Love evil incarnate? Is this not the most greuling and intense story I’ve ever listened to?
And then I woke up one morning thinking…didn’t I feel the exact same way when I was reading The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield. And did this novel not receive from each of us here at the Literary Hoarders 5-blazing-stars & a standing ovation? Was I not feeling absolute fear every single time Ras Ballenger hit the page? Was my stomach not clenching and churning in knots whenever he dished out his own brand of evil and excessive abuse?
Did I not feel the same when reading about Brother Ryder from The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry? Did I not cry inside every day for Adrian?
Did I not feel the same when reading Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan? What about Hell or High Water by Joy Castro?
The answer to all of these questions above is a resounding YES.
ALL of these books were awarded high & top honours because of the sheer emotional investment to the story, but also because of how exceptionally well written was their subject matter. Their subject matter was so gruesome, so intense they all left me shaking, weak and uneasy.
So did Joyce Carol Oates achieve the same with Daddy Love? Absolutely and then some! How can this novel then not be said to be anything but excellent? (and hey, did you notice, all of the above mentioned books are written by women.)
JCO has mastered the evil and sickness that is Daddy Love. In spades. It was incredible how deep in to his head she went when detailing his madness, his sickness, his justification for inflicting his own brand of evil. However, she has also incredibly mastered the torment and tortured soul and internal death of a young and innocent boy whom grows to adolescence in the arms of an evil, sadistic paedophile. She chronicles the significant change from a small, innocent boy named Robbie, to the eerily quiet, increasingly destructive 11-year-old Gideon. Gideon has steeled himself against the evil of Daddy Love and changes to a boy simmering with hate and spite. I felt nothing but great despair and anger to see how Robbie is forever altered from years of abuse.
She also added further “balance” to this when she took the time to portray the two parents left bereft and broken following their son’s abduction. She did not forget that side of the story, for their tale is an immensely important one as well. Their lives and marriage implode following Robbie’s abduction. She provides perfect detail of the mother’s broken, disabled and disfigured body and mind, following Dinah’s being run over by Daddy Love’s van and being left for dead, over to the father’s persistence in spending every moment of his time looking, searching, finding anything to do that may help in the disappearance of his son. Their marriage crumbles and Ms. Oates has hit on every single member of each of these families and delved deep into their mindsets. It was actually quite intensely incredible to listen to. She brilliantly captures every single character. From what makes them tick, to their mindset, mentality, and behaviour. She also smoothly brings the story full circle and to a close when Robbie returns to his parents, six years after his abduction and how each member of this broken family must heal and move forward. She also expertly addresses the questions that surface in the media and the public. Why didn’t he tell anyone? Why didn’t he run away sooner? And the subsequent media coverage, legal matters and trials facing Chester Cash/Daddy Love.
Oates breaks the story down in to three parts: The abduction, the middle years and finally the return, the return of this forever altered now 11-year-old boy. For Robbie is no longer a typical 11-year-old boy, a boy subjected to the most unspeakable horrors, he is no longer a boy that smiles easily, his eyes too wise beyond his years and he remains sullen and distant. Each part depicted with tremendous and complete detail.
Christine Williams, again, the most brilliant choice for providing the narration to this incredibly difficult story. If Joyce Carol Oates masterfully wrote the story, Christine Williams has done it immense justice by bringing the perfect voice to it. Again, I found myself completely mesmerized when listening to this audiobook. Williams perfectly captured each voice in a very calm, assured and as I noted above, hypnotic manner. When 5-year-old Gideon would answer “Yes Daddy” to Daddy Love, it would send chills racing up and down my spine, for it was impeccably performed. When she would narrate Daddy Love’s voice during those moments of horrifying abuse, I would recoil, shake and grip the steering wheel. She definitely mastered the narration of this tale. And it was a story I was completely invested in, would even drive longer on the way home, or remain sitting in the car for a few minutes before coming in to work.
For all of the above, I must give Daddy Love 4.5 stars. I’m shying from the 5-star because I fear that it would appear I freely seek these unsettling tales of horror and abuse, it was difficult to stomach yes, but you cannot in any way say it wasn’t brilliantly written and narrated.
Now excuse me while I go find Hop on Pop or Green Eggs & Ham in audio to soothe my soul.
There is a US national center for missing and exploited children, their website and hotline information is here. In Canada, it is called Childfind Canada and can be found here.