Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards is the second of the 2009 Canada Reads nominees that I read this month. I first read this book in 2000, the year it was published, and the year it won the Giller Prize, as well as the Canadian Booksellers Association award for author of the year and fiction book of the year.
I have had the privilege of attending readings by David Adams Richards a couple of times, most recently this past fall. He is an unassuming looking man – steps quietly onto the stage and begins to read from his novel – his voice distinctive and mesmerizing – one I hear now as I read his words. Mercy Among the Children is set in the Miramichi region of New Brunswick – desolate economically and culturally, and home to Sydney Henderson, his wife Elly, and his children Lyle, Autumn and little Percy. Sydney decides when he is only a child that he will refrain from doing harm to any living thing and scorns the violence of the world around him. This in the hard-drinking, hard-living back woods. Life is difficult for everyone and it is even worse for the Henderson family who are seen as misfits in the community.
In an interview in 2000 David Adams Richards says, “Thematically, the book is as much a meditation about middle-class attitudes [as the rest of my work]. Here’s a brilliant man [Sydney] who is known to have about a 170 IQ but who is pathologically gentle and is berated by the politically correct middle class simply because he refuses to stick up for himself, simply because certain crimes can be shored up on him. And Lyle is the one who is most scarred by this and fights back.” Richards’ quote continues, “My whole question is: do you fight back or don’t you? And what consequences happen if you do or do not?” “I believe that this most recent book, Mercy Among the Children, has great moments of joy in it,” Richards adds. “It’s like one of the critics of my work said: ‘Richards has been depicted as giving a voice to these hopeless characters, but the real truth is that Richards gives them a voice because he wants to show you that they’re not hopeless at all.’ I really think it’s all there, but it’s all in the reading of the book. Also, I think there’s a good deal of humour in my novels – especially in my non-fiction, but in my novels, too.” The author agrees that some readers may not fully appreciate the humour in his work because, unlike many contemporary authors, he doesn’t employ irony. In other words, Richards doesn’t make fun of his characters.
Well, this reader couldn’t find any humour in this book no matter how had I tried. My parents were both born and raised in New Brunswick – my father in the city of Saint John and my mother on a farm in the country. My mother lived a very long 10 miles from the nearest town, where she boarded to attend high school. From a large family, she was the only one who went on to have a post-secondary education. My mother became a teacher and then a nurse, and escaped the poverty of her childhood. She may have missed her mother, but she has never had any desire to return to New Brunswick for more than the rare, quick visit. We spent time on the farm each summer, driving through the countryside, past tar paper shacks – I see the home of the Henderson family as one of those shacks.
David Adams Richards captures that New Brunswick poverty along with the “smell of the docks and the Irving pulp mill” right from the first page of this novel. The feud between the Henderson and the Pit families begins with Sydney’s father and continues into the lives of his children and grandchildren with tragic consequences. These are people who have nothing – the poverty is of the spirit, of intellect. The jealousy toward anyone who has any happiness, or luck, or fortune is vicious. The damage of gossip, often a theme in David Adams Richards novels, is literally deadly.
I could go on to outline the story and the characters – there are so many and all are so vividly rendered. This is a writer who has that magic, the ability to make his characters real. And it is the writing that saves this book from being simply a desperate, depressing, dark novel. There is nothing cheery here – but there is brilliant writing, and great reading.