I’ve spoken before about my lingering high-school bias toward Canadian literature. And while I consider it largely overcome, some things still set off alarm bells. And in the first 20 pages or so of David Adams Richard’s Mercy Among the Children, they were ringing like mad. There were pine trees, snow, and moose…and little else. It was like crunching on a mouthful of maple leaves. And I thought, “Oh God, this is going to be a long haul.” Thank goodness I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Set in a small town in New Brunswick, Mercy Among the Children is the story of two generations of the Henderson family who are miserably poor, and as a result, almost always beset by misfortune. However, many other families in the town experience the same biting poverty, yet there is one difference between them: ever since Sydney Henderson (the father), pushed another boy off a roof in anger when he was a child, he vowed to never again act in anger, or even to speak up for himself. This single decision will change the course his life, as well as the lives of his wife and three children.
Although Richards uses multiple perspectives, the most dominant is that of Lyle, Sydney’s eldest son, who cannot understand why his father will not stand up for himself in the face of unjust accusations. At first, these accusations are small – stolen fish or starting a fire, but soon Sydney is accused of the darkest of crimes – sexually assaulting a young retarded boy, and then leaving him to die. Yet still, Sydney’s gentleness and self control permit him from defending himself, and the town turns upon the family that has always made them uncomfortable, making Sydney the scapegoat for all the town’s recent troubles. When his father will not speak up for himself or his family, Lyle starts to see him as weak, as a coward and lets his anger take over. He is tired of being an outsider, of being mercilessly persecuted by the other children and scorned by the town. He takes to carrying a knife, he sees the tremendous power in anger, and we watch as he becomes everything his father would not wish him to be.
This is one of the darkest novels I’ve ever read. It is laced with perpetual foreboding, and any of the smallest actions can snowball into something even greater and more fearsome. It is a town in which the earth itself is poisoned by chemical dumping, which makes people sick or disabled (Lyle’s sister August is born an albino) adding to people’s misfortune. Although the greater poison is the lies and secrets which creep in as insidiously as the pesticides, slowly corrupting goodness. Outside of Sydney and his wife Elly, there is no loyalty, no community, and Richards does a brilliant job of analyzing the motivations of some of the town’s most despicable characters. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that we can even manage some sympathy for them, for Richards illustrates the delicate rationalizations which allow us to remain convinced of our own goodness no matter the situation, these gradual revisions of our own histories, and memories, creating that essential self-delusion that allows us to carry on. Although of course it is these very machinations that propel the misfortune in this a town in which everyone is trying to rectify a perceived imbalance – owed or owing. Yet Syndey Henderson saw through this from the beginning and trusted the universe would right itself, though this may not save him or his family in time. Perhaps the novel’s greatest tragedy is that Lyle does not understand this lesson, and the reader must watch as one bad decision leads to another, until he is hopelessly enmeshed in a web born of his own anger. He discovers too late that the harder fight is resisting the intoxicating power of violence, and that for this his father was actually the strongest man imaginable.
Though most of the action takes place in the 1980s, the Hendersons live in a tiny shack in the woods, and the appearance of technology seems almost anachronistic, for here is man at his most primal, stripped of all the trappings that make him “civilized.” And despite this small town, Mercy Among the Children manages to convey the most sweeping range of human emotion from the purest love to the most bitter hate (tellingly, the books four main sections are entitled: mercy, fury, love and redemption – if that’s not sweeping, I don’t know what is). In a novel of murder, plotting, lying, and scheming, the root of all evil seems to be poverty, and the desperation that comes from the internalized scorn of others and the desire to improve one’s condition at any cost.
Reminiscent of Fall on Your Knees (probably my favourite Canadian novel), not just for it’s east coast setting, but focusing on the dark secrets of an entire town rather than just one family, Mercy Among the Children is similarly gut-wrenching, but essential reading. It is the best Giller winner I’ve read in a long time (which interestingly shared the Giller in 2000 with Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost – which in my opinion, can’t hold a candle to Mercy). Should it be the book that all of Canada Reads? It seems comparing this to Fruit or The Book of Negroes is like comparing apples and oranges, and I’m glad I’m not on that jury. I’m sure that Sarah Slean will champion it well – at the initial announcement she had the conviction of Sydney Henderson and was the most prepared of all the champions. And so, unable to champion one Canada Reads book, I’ll actually end the post with my own championing of the talented Ms. Slean, and the last track off her new album, The Baroness, called “Looking for Someone” which I think is a beautiful anthem for the lonely, but hopeful: