Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

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

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.

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4 responses

  1. Not a bad review, I like it. You would hardly see any bad reviews on this book. However, I personally think after reading this and as well as many others that have, find this depressing. Not interims of a “boring” book(In fact I find it interesting), but It all starts when Sydney pushes Connie Devlin off a roof, to the point where he, Elly, Mathew, Percy… die. Things never really progress in the matter of a sustainable society just like how the book is set up(Mercy, Fury, Love, Redemption). I see that these sections refer only to specific people separately, but that really makes the entire scenario the same, except the balance will shift from one side to the other.

  2. Colleen Sieswerda | Reply

    I am a new reader of David Adams Richards. I just finished Mercy Among The Children. All I can say is “WOW”…………………I loved every page of this fascinating story. Any author who can get me so attached to his “good guy” characters is a winner in my books. What a gem you are David Adams Richards!!! Keep ’em coming.

  3. I have re-read this book half a dozen times now and never tire of David Adams Richards writing. He writes amazing books about ordinary people and I hang on his every word. I recognize all of his characters and identify with every subject he covers.
    Definately my favorite author.

  4. I am reading this for the second time, yet it’s even more powerful the second time around. I love his thinking, his writing, his ability to force us to have a hard look at ourselves, to rethink what we value. I had the honor, pleasure of meeting Mr Richards. He is a gentle soul, kind and generous. I felt he had lived these experiences and had witnessed much in his life. He truly reminds us of what is important in life, and what is of value, and what is fluff. All his books are profound and life altering, and if you don’t think so….you have truly missed the boat.

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