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February 13, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Following along with Canada Reads online, I’ve found it a testament to both the book and its author that so many readers have been driven to put down Mercy Among the Children because of its “bleakness”, or because “it’s depressing.” Doesn’t that strike you as a powerful effect for a novel to have? To be abandoned for reasons quite different from being boring, or incomprehensible. Any assemblage of text that can hit one that hard must be something of an marvelous construction.

But I do understand what these readers are saying, because Mercy is certainly not easy. Though it’s not difficult either, being set within the last twenty years, most excellently paced, and written in accessible language that still manages to be exquisite prose. Where I lacked access, however, was in terms of literary allusion, which restricted a whole plane of the novel’s experience. Further, I’m seriously under-read in the kinds of novels from which this one finds its tradition– nineteenth century, Russian, or written by Thomas Hardy.

I think understanding this kind of literary tradition would have provided the bleakness of Mercy Among the Children with some kind of context. But lacking that background as I do, I could only take the Richards’ narrative as I found it. The story of the Henderson family whose bad luck is unrelenting, as narrated by their son Lyle. The father Sydney committing himself to pacifism at a young age to save himself from the world around him, for he believes that whatever ill you inflict upon another will come back to you in ways that are multifold. This stance distinguishing Sydney as somebody different, a threat to the status-quo.

“You are allowed anything in this life,” Sydney’s wife Elly tries to tell him, “except the luxury of being different– this is why you are being tried.” Theirs is a world where success comes only with “deceit and treachery”, and Sydney’s refusal to pay this price means his family remains impoverished out in their tar-shack on the highway, his children are tormented at school, and he is framed for crimes he would never commit. He won’t defend himself against these accusations either, feeling such arguments beneath him. He may be an uneducated man, but he taught himself to read, and he has absorbed enough of the wisdom of books (which as “knowledge” is distinguished from “learning”) to be confident in the direction of his leanings.

As a reader I had to steel myself against the Hendersons’ fate, one horrible plight after after and soon I just became resigned (which is perhaps my version of “putting the book down”). The novel’s devastating conclusion utterly ineffectual then, for I’d become numb to it all– but as Lyle Henderson had to some extent too, I think my experience was analogous. The conclusion also somewhat satisfying in proving that Sydney Henderson was right, that everyone will get what’s coming at the end, though I wonder– at what price?

This is an interesting novel to consider for discussion, because I think most readers will focus on a judgment of the characters rather than a discussion of the book itself. Whether Sydney was right in his stance, did he betray his family, whether Lyle’s deviation from his father’s ways was justified or not. Though there is a certain limitation to this kind of discussion too, for so many of Richards’ characters are written as “types”. He explains them to us: who is weak and who is strong, and though he has sympathy for some of the most unsympathetic types (providing an understanding of the devious Pits, for instance, who are the architects of most of the Hendersons’ destruction), others (particularly those who are more “learned” than “wise”) are presented as utterly ignorant and one dimensional.

I struggled with the female characters too, who were beautiful, stupid and helpless (but with a core of inner strength), and endlessly coveted sexually, or were shrewd, mannish, ugly, and utterly unsexed. In the novel’s afterward, more hopeful scenarios are presented for these characters (or at least for those who haven’t died), but these are more alluded to rather than shown.

Mercy Among the Children read like a great novel to me, in a way that Brian Francis’s Fruit isn’t, but– guess what– I still think Fruit is more worthy of being the novel that Canada Reads. Actually dealing with much the same subject matter too– Peter Paddington would probably be well aware that we’re allowed anything in this life except the luxury of being different. Peter is feared for his differences just as Sydney Henderson is feared, because those who challenge the status-quo threaten to expose the worst about the rest of us. But because Francis doesn’t drive the point all the way home in quite the way that Richards does, and because Francis’s comedy is most engaging (and rare in Canadian lit.), I will leave Fruit at number one.

I still think The Book of Negroes is an amazing book, and worth reading for all of the reasons Avi Lewis outlines here. But I don’t think any of his reasons are good ones for picking up a novel. I really find The Book of Negroes is a kind of nonfiction incognito, and though I enjoyed it more than Mercy Among the Children, and learned much more from it, I can’t help but determine Mercy.. as a more successful work of fiction.

Canada Reads Rankings (so far):
1) Fruit by Brian Francis
2) Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
3) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

2 thoughts on “Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards”

  1. Rachel Power says:

    I will order both–Fruit and Mercy…! I loved Thomas Hardy novels when I was at school, but similarly weak on Russian literature–and I really feel that gap. How do you get through all these books–when/where do you read?!

  2. Kerry says:

    I read at all opportunities, which have been ever fleeting since I got pregnant, and will be even rarer once the baby is born. Trying to fit writing into the batch as well has lately been near impossible. But at least when the books are this good, I can be confident I’m spending my time wisely.

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