Dinah Whitcomb is out shopping at the mall with her five year old son Robbie when she realises she can’t find the family car. In a bit of a panic, she hunts for the car only for something far worse to happen. She is attacked by a man with a hammer who hits her over the head. Her son is abducted and when she chases the van in which his captor is driving she is run over, her body and face badly mutilated. The physical pain of her injuries is nothing compared to the horrifying loss of her son.
Chester Cash is a charismatic and attractive man, with long flowing hair and a well toned, muscular body. Ladies like Chester and Chester knows how to use that to his advantage. Men like him to, inviting him over to drink beer and eat barbeque, but Chester is not attracted to men or women – he likes young boys and what he likes, he takes. Chester Cash is ‘Daddy Love’ and Robbie is the youngest boy he’s taken, the latest in a line of victims stolen from their families and passed off as his ‘son’.
Chester likes them young but when the boys start to grow he begins to lose interest and the boys lose their lives, their bodies rotting in unmarked graves in the woods by his home. Chester Cash is also a preacher with the ironically titled ‘Church of Abiding Hope’ and the last person his congregation and neighbours would ever suspect of being a predatory paedophile and child killer.
In Daddy Love’s house Robbie is no more; renamed as Gideon and told that his parents didn’t want him, that they gave him away and that his mother was a bad mother because she smoked. Gideon is now Daddy Love’s ‘son’ and is ‘trained’ like a dog. Good behaviour is praised, bad behaviour is punished, instantly and painfully. In the early days he’s kept locked in a coffin-like box called the ‘wooden maiden’, left struggling to breathe, standing in his own waste with a gag in his mouth. He doesn’t know what to believe but he knows he’ll be punished and so he does what he’s told to. Resistance is futile so he learns to do what his captor tells him.
Meanwhile Dinah is trying to survive the grief of losing her son, spending hours every day in his room, going for physio, building up her strength after the attack, learning not to look people in the eye or scare them with her deformities. She talks too much, she knows she does, but people accept it, making allowances for what she’s been through. She accepts her scars and her damaged body but she cannot accept that she’ll never see her boy again. She rehearses in her mind how she’ll react when the police call to say they’ve found her boy. Her husband Whit seeks solace in the arms of one woman after another, each knowing that he can’t possibly leave Dinah until the situation with Robbie is resolved. He throws himself into working with charities to support the search for missing children, but he and Dinah are growing apart whilst remaining inexorably bound together by their shared grief.
Is it OK to say I ‘enjoyed’ Daddy Love? I’m sure many would shudder at the idea of such a thing but if you’re not familiar with the writing of Joyce Carol Oates, then it’s understandable that you might think it impossible to enjoy the skill of the writing whilst being repelled by the subject but that’s how the book is. Oates is such an outstanding writer that she’s almost excused from the usual taboos of what can and cannot be written about. The book does tell of horrifying abuse but it never lingers on the torments of the boy and his parents, it never plays the physical and sexual abuse for any kind of sick titillation or leaves the reader feeling a bit ‘icky’ or contaminated by what they’ve read. The worst of Cash’s behaviour is delivered to the page in a matter of fact, straight down the line way that doesn’t leave room for self-doubt in the reader. This ‘stuff’ happens – not writing or reading about it won’t stop that.
As readers we are left wondering why Gideon/Robbie doesn’t go to teachers, church leaders or neighbours and tell them what’s happening whilst at the same time we understand the extreme power Daddy Love has over the boy. What if Cash is right? What if Robbie’s parents did give him away, didn’t want him any more? What if the only ‘love’ he can know is the controlling and sexually abusive ‘love’ that Daddy Love offers him? It may seem crazy to the reader who has the whole story laid out before him, but we know from every case of abuse that’s ever been reported that the instinct of a child is to try to be good, to believe the threats of their abuser, to go along with the abuse because there could be something even worse out there if they fight back.
This is not an easy read and not something I can recommend to every reader. I think parents – especially the parents of young children – will probably find this just too raw and painful to read and they might prefer to just not be exposed to this book. Parents or not, readers will have to witness horrifying abuse in the pages of ‘Daddy Love’. But if you’re a fan of Joyce Carol Oates, you probably know already that she can write on any topic, no matter how abhorrent and leave you grateful for the insight she offers.
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