A family gone off the grid; an autocratic father distrustful of all things government; a mother who puts up with her husband’s abusive behavior in the interests of keeping the family peace; well-meaning strangers who try to help but are shut out. A child is left to make the best of it all, not knowing any other life, but suspecting there is one based on rare glimpses of “normalcy.”
All of these elements are woven into David Armand’s new novel, The Lord’s Acre. Set in the small town of Angie, Louisiana, thirteen-year-old Eli is the only child of John and Rebekah Woodbine. The family lives in a rundown house on a farm where John works. John is deeply suspicious of the outside world and entrenched in ill-defined religious beliefs that seldom inspire empathy for others. He is a mediocre provider, prone to stretches of laziness, and has a stubborn inability to follow instructions. Rebekah barely tolerates her husband, exhibiting little affection or respect, and occasionally lapsing into bouts of anger that lead her to over-medicate and listen to the Beatles. Caught in the middle of his parents’ troubled relationship is Eli – intelligent, creative, and keenly self-aware, yet friendless and not permitted to attend school. He is a mostly obedient son, yet occasionally defiant, permitting himself to deviate from his father’s strict orders and ask for forgiveness later.
Armand delivers a realistic and hard biting portrait of an adolescent boy who simply wants to survive. When the family is dismissed from the Tally property and become homeless, Eli accepts having to sleep in the bed of a truck in the woods and to collect cans to obtain money for food. When a stranger directs him to The Light of His Way Baptist Church, Eli believes he has found a solution to the family’s problems. There they meet Father, the leader of a cultish assembly of followers who live in refurbished school buses and farm the adjacent land, which they call The Lord’s Acre. Father is a rough-looking man, hardly a polished savior, yet he possesses a vitality that captivates Eli. “Something warm seemed to radiate from him,” Eli reflects, “like a fire stoked with large branches, their undersides white and cracked with heat as flames ticked and popped and warmed the air around them.”
Father befriends Eli, taking more of an interest in him than his other followers. Eli starts to notice the inconsistencies in some of Father’s stories, but he craves the attention of a real father so desperately that he puts his suspicions aside. At this point in the novel, Eli’s parents seem to fade into the communal backdrop and are rarely mentioned, as Eli lets his faith in Father overtake his judgment. “I felt lucky to be in his presence,” he tells himself. It is a fragile attachment at best, as Armand creates early warning signs that Father may not be all Eli believes him to be.
The Lord’s Acre is told in the first-person narrative from Eli’s point of view. Eli’s keen powers of observation are heavily leveraged throughout the novel, in particular to convey the tension and alienation between his family and the rest of the world. At a county fair, Eli finds his father sitting alone in the bleachers, and is reminded of an assassin “just before the fatal shot is fired, that one face somber, eyes cold and calculating before doing what he had gone there to do.” Later, Eli notices the Christmas decorations at a recycling center where he and his father trade cans for food money and recalls his one and only Christmas, a tree decorated with drawings cut out from an encyclopedia, that had “almost made me believe that things could for once be special in my family.” Armand uses these small details, packaged in an adolescent boy’s humble voice, to capture Eli’s sense of otherness.
The Lord’s Acre opens with a scene of an older Eli breaking into a grocery store and getting caught, an early clue that things will likely not go well for him in the end. Yet Armand’s crafting of young Eli’s point of view is so intimate, so realistic that the reader will hope throughout the story that he will somehow turn out fine. That very hope, a gift to a boy who has no other reason to believe that life will ever be any better, is what makes Armand’s novel such a compelling read.
The Lord’s Acre
By David Armand
Texas Review Press
Published July 15, 2020