Mercy Among the Children
David Adams Richards
Jonathan Cape £10, pp384
While the titans of contemporary Canadian fiction - the late Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje - have consistently looked beyond their own national boundaries and age to produce a literature of universal sweep, there has appeared in recent years a school of writers defiantly returning to a kind of fiction unmistakably Canadian in its themes and settings, including the likes of Wayne Johnston, Alistair Macleod and David Adams Richards, whose Mercy Among the Children was joint winner (with Ondaatje) of Canada's Giller Prize.
Set in the weather-blasted Maritimes, the story is as bleak as the landscape that overshadows it. Lyle Henderson, now in his mid-twenties, relates the story of his childhood in grinding rural poverty with his saint-like parents and albino sister, and his family's long-standing feud with the family of Mathew Pit. The catalogue of tragedies to befall the Hendersons is so relentless, and their suffering so patient and good-hearted, that it begins to make Hardy's later novels look like episodes of Friends.
Sydney, Lyle's father, is self-educated, though thwarted in his academic dreams, and works as a labourer; in an ill-educated community the family is regarded with suspicion and falls victim to the bullying of ignorant men, chief among them Pit and his cringing sidekick Connie Devlin. Falsely accused first of various petty thefts, which blame he shoulders in order to protect the real thieves, Sydney is eventually framed for the sexual abuse and murder of Pit's retarded brother, an accusation that begins to unravel the lives of everyone in the wretched fishing village.
Yet Sydney's tireless pacifism and kindness, and his wife's gentle naivety in the face of persistent cruelty and brutality from their neighbours, begin to seem the stuff of parable, even to their young son, who grows up determined not to be a victim and instead grows as callous as his family's enemies on the surface, while inside he is consumed by guilt.
Adams Richards's characters are compelling, if not entirely convincing, in the simplicity of their allegiances and vendettas, so that it comes as a shock when every now and again a narrative detail reminds us that the novel is set at the end of the twentieth century and not the mid-nineteenth. Glimpses of redemption are held out and then cruelly snatched away, but the just and the unjust suffer in equal measure and no one, it seems, is exempt.
Lyle's narrative is set in an unnecessary frame story, as he comes to tell his tale to Terrieux, a retired police officer in New Brunswick, a device that renders certain parts of his story improbable - how can he describe the dreams of a woman he barely knows, or detail the thoughts of his young brother minutes before he is hit by a car? The frame story re-emerges only in the Afterword, when we learn that Terrieux fails to be reconciled with his ex-wife, and 'still lives in the Empire Hotel, and drinks too much in the tavern across the street' - presumably in case we might have imagined any of the characters ending up happy.
And yet, in spite of its obvious narrative flaws - Lyle, a thug and a bruiser, albeit one with a conscience, never mentions an interest in books, but alludes to Milton, Dante and Plato - the novel is gripping even when it becomes implausible. Sydney and his gentle, beautiful wife Elly are fascinating purely because such unsullied goodness is a rarity even in fiction, and the story becomes correspondingly less interesting as they fade out of the centre.
Adams Richards vividly conveys the textures of rural poverty in a monotonous landscape and his triumph is to encapsulate the uneasy collision of three centuries in the lives of a handful of forgotten people, though the novel's bleak and essentially pessimistic view of humanity leaves the reader with an indefinable sense of dissatisfaction and a reverberating sadness.
Co-Winner of the 2000 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2000 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2009
A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2000
An Ottawa Citizen Best Book – 2000
I have two things to say to start out: first, this was an incredible book; second, there will be spoilers in this review. I feel that I cannot express what I want to express without giving away key plot points and the ending of the book; I do not feel bad about this as this novel is ten years old, a multiple award winner, a former Canada Reads selection, and a national bestseller during its time. So that being said, let’s get down to it. I am a big fan of David Adams Richards. I like the gritty and detailed style he uses to really dig into the hearts and souls of his characters. Mercy Among the Children is Richards’ masterpiece. Epic in proportion but local in narrative, this story would crack even the stoniest reader. Set in the rural Miramichi area of New Brunswick, this novel explores the bondages that people are born into and suffer through: namely family circumstances and reputations, poverty, low standing in regards to societal class, faith, and general surroundings.
This novel looks at three generations of the Henderson family: grandfather and patriarch Roy Henderson, Sydney Henderson – central character through most of the novel, and his son, Lyle Henderson. Richards weaves a rich tapestry of characters that are truly representative of rural Maritime life: the mill workers, the rich businessman with little education, the self-educated outcast, and many many others. Having grown up and spent most of my life in the Maritimes, with much of this time being spent in rural areas of Nova Scotia and PEI, I believe this is a novel that only someone from this part of the country could write this well. I have met someone almost identical to all of these characters at some point; Mercy Among the Children is a novel that because of its locality, is universal in message and theme.
Ninety-five percent of the novel is told from the first person point-of-view of third generation Lyle Henderson; the narration is his relation of the events to a police officer in Saint John that he feels needs to hear his story. As the novel progresses the innocence that is so admiral about the members of the Henderson family erodes away. From almost the first chapter we see how the sins of the father transfer to the son. Roy Henderson, wrongfully accused of setting Leo McVicar’s mill ablaze, goes to prison and seals his family’s fate. His father, a self-educated amateur philosopher, is a pariah in the community because of both his family lineage and relentless pacifistic existence; as a result of this he is consistently taken advantage of by people in his community and used as a scapegoat for their own personal illicit gains, resulting in the untimely death of many innocent people, including Sydney himself.
One character I love in the book is the antagonist, Matthew Pit. A seemingly psychopathic monster, he will stop at nothing to influence and control those around him and free himself from his own bondage at the expense of anyone, especially Sydney. As the book progresses Matthew manipulates everyone around him, including Lyle after his father’s death. At the end of the novel, in a very symbolic moment, the Pit and Henderson families are eternally united through death and a life-giving gift.
Sydney Henderson has three children, Lyle, Autumn – an albino, and Percy. These three children represent the three options that people who are born into this type of situation usually have: First: death, as is the case of young Percy; second: you break free of these shackles and live your own life, as Autumn does with her successful novel and family; or third, you live your life exactly like the parents you so despised, as Lyle does. What really interests me is the fact that Lyle, as the novel comes to a close, ends up being a multimillionaire through an interesting turn of events with Leo McVicar’s family ties, yet he is still as miserable and angry as he was when he was an alcoholic young adult who committed physical acts of contrition to punish himself. Lyle never breaks free from the sins of his father or grandfather, even after everyone, including McVicar and Matthew Pit forgive them.
Mercy Among the Children is not a happy novel. It does not have a happy ending and everything isn’t tied up in a nice little package. In this way it is very realistic, when is life ever wrapped up neatly? This is a book that will haunt you. Despite being a very long book, 420 pages in my edition, I could read no more than 20 pages in a sitting simply because of the emotional toll the story has on you. A co-winner of the Giller Prize in 2000, the only year the prize was split, this novel will definitely endure past its authors time. The novel was perfectly paced, the climaxes were subtle and effective, and the characters believable. I strongly believe that David Adams Richards should be looked at in the same light as the other great writers of his generation like Michael Ondaatje, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Timothy Findley.
Posted in: Fiction | Tagged: 2000s, Atlantic Canadian, Canada Reads, fiction, Giller Prize, Globe and Mail Best Book