Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
What did it win?
Giller Prize 2000 (co-winner)
What’s it all about?
The miserable life of a Miramichi man puts his childhood vow to never harm another human being to the test. His son has different ideas.
Was it really any good?
It is, and I was happy to see it win an award. It was certainly a much better read than its Giller co-winner, Anil’s Ghost (which I couldn’t finish). Just in passing, however, I think it should be pointed out – and I don’t recall anyone mentioning this at the time – that one of the judges on the Giller panel in 2000 was Alistair MacLeod. Now MacLeod is certainly an eminent Canadian writer, and I’m sure an all-around great guy, but Richards’s last novel, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, was dedicated to him. Aren’t you supposed to recuse yourself when this happens?
As far as the book itself is concerned, it might best be classified as popular romance. By popular romance I do not mean the same thing as literary pulp romance, those upscale nurse novels like The English Patient and Cold Mountain. Richards’s version of the popular romance is more akin to the regional folktale (think Hardy, Faulkner, or the Brontës). The narrative in such novels is often, as here, imagined as an oral performance, and is closer to myth than realistic fiction.
To say that Mercy Among the Children is not primarily a realistic work may strike some as strange. This is because Richards’s work is so identified with a real place (the Miramichi), and so powerfully evokes the lives of the local inhabitants, and in particular those of the poor. Poverty is something physical in Richards’s prose, its “colour” and “smell” brought to life in the bad haircuts, wiry muscles, rotten clothes, loud music, and rough language of his characters.
But while realism is notoriously difficult to define, since everyone’s reality is different, Mercy Among the Children is obviously less a social documentary than a spiritual inquiry. Like any moral work, it is organized to illustrate a point, which lends it some of the qualities of a fable or fairy-tale. Once we recognize the sort of world we are in, the contrived elements of the plot seem less out of place.
While I am on this subject, I should add that it is a common mistake among reviewers to fail to recognize what kind of a book they are talking about before passing judgment. Not every novel can be expected to adhere to conventions of verisimilitude, yet many reviewers automatically ask whether characters and plot are “believable,” even in books where this clearly isn’t an issue. Sydney Henderson is a saint, his wife Elly an angelic vision, yet in this book they are hardly out of place. In addition, the story features a number of elements taken straight out of romance, like the revelation of the secret illegitimate children of Leo McVicer, the local Prince. And the ending, with Sydney and Elly’s two surviving children transformed into an internationally recognized author and a multimillionaire scholar gypsy, is entirely outside a realistic presentation of the lives of those who inhabit the “soil of the damned . . . the wide empire of the poor.”
Then there is the morality. My sense is that Richards is a strictly moral writer whose judgment is tempered somewhat by an uneasy naturalism. Naturalism, in the literary sense, is an approach to fiction that explains human behaviour in quasi-scientific terms as the product of genetic forces or the social environment. Mercy Among the Children is quite typical of naturalism in its focus on crime and lives destroyed by poverty, as well as its awareness of how the behaviour of people like the Pits can be determined by their upbringing and environment. Since no one is strictly responsible for their actions, a wide sympathy and tolerance can be extended for events that are accidental, preordained, or unwilled. Take, for example, the following description of Cynthia Pit plotting to trap Rudy Bellanger with her pregnancy:
Now that Rudy was vulnerable and in too deep to find an avenue to escape she allowed him none. None of this was done with conscious malice. It simply happened, suddenly – like her pregnancy. She would see an opening and dive in. There always came a moment when she thought it better not to continue, but then her eyes would burn like brilliant dark stars, her beauty would turn suddenly vulgar and wanton, and she would tell people to dare her.
There is plenty here to quibble with – like how something can simply happen unconsciously and yet also be the result of seeing an opening and diving in – but we understand where Richards is coming from. We mustn’t be too quick to judge Cynthia; it’s in her nature.
Fair enough. Sympathy and tolerance are usually considered to be cardinal virtues for a novelist. But what I think Richards really wants to write are passages like this:
When a child he had prayed to be safe, to be happy, to be loved. And now too late he realized that he had been given what he prayed for. By the time he was twenty-one he had been safe and happy and loved. But it wasn’t enough for him. And did he give anything in return? No. He had not been kind to Elly because of conceit and lust. He had not been good to Gladys because of greed. And he had not loved because of fear.
Now that is the real Richards talking: A preacher who doesn’t at all mind judging the thoughts and actions of others. No shilly-shally about pregnancies that “simply happen” – we’re talking about lust and greed and fear.
There are real faults with the book. The sentimentality is as pronounced as it is in MacLeod, and sinks perilously close to bathos with the death of Percy Henderson. (I realize the scene’s function, but did we really need the image of his “blond hair wisped in the wind,” his eyes “filled with tears,” and the old dog licking his face?) But as with MacLeod, the intensity of feeling and vision more than compensate. There is a fullness in the work of both these writers, some heartfelt mine of life, that makes the work of most other contemporary novelists seem lightweight in comparison.
We could use more of their kind.