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Mercy Among the Children [Paperback]

David Adams Richards
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 21 2001
Mercy Among the Children received effusive praise from the critics, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and won the Giller Prize. It was named one of 2000’s best books, became a national bestseller in hardcover for months, and would be published in the US and UK. It is seen, however, as being at odds with literary fashion for concerning itself with good and evil and the human freedom to choose between them — an approach that puts Richards, as Maclean’s magazine says, firmly in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Author Wayne Johnston recounts hearing Richards read in 1983 and being struck by his unqualified love for every one of his characters, even though “it was not then fashionable to love your characters”. Pottersfield Portfolio editor Tony Tremblay calls Richards the most misunderstood Canadian writer of the century, and a “great moralist”, comparing him to Morley Callaghan, Kafka and Melville.

As a boy, Sydney Henderson thinks he has killed Connie Devlin when he pushes him from a roof for stealing his sandwich. He vows to God he will never again harm another if Connie survives. Connie walks away, laughing, and Sydney embarks upon a life of self-immolating goodness. In spite of having educated himself with such classics as Tolstoy and Marcus Aurelius, he is not taken seriously enough to enter university because of his background of dire poverty and abuse, which leads everyone to expect the worst of him. His saintly generosity of spirit is treated with suspicion and contempt, especially when he manages to win the love of beautiful Elly. Unwilling to harm another in thought or deed, or to defend himself against false accusations, he is exploited and tormented by others in this rural community, and finally implicated in the death of a 19-year-old boy.

Lyle Henderson knows his father is innocent, but is angry that the family has been ridiculed for years, and that his mother and sister suffer for it. He feels betrayed by his father’s passivity in the face of one blow after another, and unable to accept his belief in long-term salvation. Unlike his father, he cannot believe that evil will be punished in the end. While his father turns the other cheek, Lyle decides the right way is in fighting, and embarks on a morally empty life of stealing, drinking and violence.

A compassionate, powerful story of humanity confronting inhumanity, it is a culmination of Richards’ last seven books, beginning with Road to the Stilt House. It takes place in New Brunswick’s Miramichi Valley, like all of his novels so far, which has led some urban critics to misjudge his work as regional — a criticism leveled at Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Emily Bronte in their own day. Like his literary heroes, Richards aims to evoke universal human struggles through his depiction of the events of a small, rural place, where one person’s actions impact inevitably on others in a tragic web of interconnectedness. The setting is extremely important in Richards’ work, “because the characters come from the soil”; but as British Columbia author Jack Hodgins once told Richards, “every character you talk about is a character I've met here in Campbell River”.

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From Amazon

Transpose Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure to New Brunswick's rugged Miramichi River. Surround Job with loose fists, malicious boots, and cold, gallon wine. Invite the Macbeths over for drinks. Add a lame dog named Scupper Pit and you've got the raw ingredients of David Adams Richards's Mercy Among the Children. Set in an isolated, wind-besieged house with bullet holes in the tarpaper walls, Richards's novel wonders-- pointedly, beautifully--whether goodness is merely a luxury.

At the age of 12, having borne more suffering in his child's body than any adult should endure, Sydney Henderson vows never to harm another human soul. Turning his back on the violent alcoholism of his upbringing, self-educated Sydney wins the honest respect of the beautiful Elly and the children they bear. Honest respect, however, is rarely a match for fear and base human opportunism. Manipulated, attacked, and abused by a small community eager for a scapegoat, Sydney loses his job, the health of his wife, and, most importantly, the respect of his son Lyle. "There is no worse flaw in man's character," Richards knows, "than that of wanting to belong."

The superb, controlled, and unapologetic Mercy Among the Children is nothing less than an inquiry into human strength. Richards uses the crack of ribs on a frigid night to remind us of the opportunistic populism of much so-called morality. Mercy, which shared Canada's premier fiction award, the Giller Prize, with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, combines the hound dog's attention to locale of fellow Maritimer Alistair MacLeod with the quotidian insight of countryman Timothy Findley's The Wars, especially its reminder that the emotions behind war also drive fights over who should scrub the dinner dishes. --Darryl Whetter

From Publishers Weekly

Unrecognized yet in the States, Canadian author Richards should win new readers here with this stark and affecting novel. A working man living in a shack in the "Stumps," an area of New Brunswick dependent on timber and tourism, Sydney Henderson has the unfortunate knack of arousing hostility among his neighbors by the unconscious display of his virtues. As a child, he was beaten by his father, sexually abused by his priest and once nearly killed a playmate. Out of such experiences he has forged a Tolstoyan moral credo, educating himself in literature and art and refusing to meet violence with violence. When Sydney marries Elly Brown, who is judged too beautiful to be matched with the town's poverty-stricken outcast, the scapegoating gets worse. Rebuffed by Elly when he attempts to rape her, a vindictive Stumps resident joins a scheme that eventually causes Sydney to be blamed for crimes he hasn't committed, including manslaughter and child abuse. The novel is narrated by Sydney's son, Lyle, who, in opposition to his father's stoic pacifism, craves revenge. In trying to exact it, he becomes feared, but is inwardly polluted. Worse, he injures those he loves most. The dogged narration takes some time to acquire dramatic tension, but eventually its unflagging rhythm becomes addictive. Though some readers may recoil from the book's frank depiction of pervasive poverty, Richards shows how powerfully the novel can operate as a mode of moral exploration a fact sometimes forgotten in the age of postmodern irony. (Oct.)Forecast: Richards's novel won Canada's 2000 Giller Award (shared with Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost), and critical attention should give it a boost here, too. Arcade is ordering a 35,000-copy first printing and sending Richards on a four-city author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the truth DOES matter! Feb. 11 2002
This is among the very best fiction I have read in a long long while. And yet, it was given to me by a friend who could not endure reading any further than the first few chapters. I think it is the kind of story you either love or hate, it is dark and frustrating and definitely not a "feel-good". I can see how some could feel smothered and weary with the relentless pessimistic Hardyesque fatalism that Richards marinates this thing in... it's like Jude The Obsure meets the biblical Book of Job! But I like Hardy. And Job for that matter! So I did not mind the constant question that revolves in "Mercy" which is, "How is the Henderson family going to survive the terrible injustice, shame and misfortune that is hurled against them?" Does truth matter?
Set in rural New Brunswick, Lyle Henderson, now nineteen years old, narrates the history of his family... the misfortune and ostracism that began with his grandfather and was passed on down to Lyle's father Sydney. At the age of twelve, an accident happens and Sydney, mistaking his friend for dead and believing himself responsible, makes a rash vow to God. If the boy lives, Sydney will never harm another living soul. The boy gets up and walks away. Lyle's recollections chronicle the result of Sydney's radical superhuman commitment to an unlimited "turn-the-other-cheek" pacifism. Sydney subjects himself, and in turn, subjects his family to a life of utter poverty and ridicule in the face of escalating accusations and abuse that come from a community that is only too willing to take advantage of his non-resistance. As Lyle says at one point "My mother and father's dreams were always dispensable to certain people, who for some reason believed that they themselves and their dreams were indispensable.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable! June 10 2002
Here is a book about poverty, both of the spirit and of the pocket. Written in spare, tidy prose with exceptional characterizations, it is a dark tale periodically shot through with veins of pure gold; moments of such exquisite sweetness (in the character of little Percy, or the aging but quietly heroic Jay Beard) that they are painful. There is nothing stock about the narrative or about the characters who are among the most fully realized I've ever read. The good people (the Hendersons) are all forgivably flawed in some small way. And the bad people are understandable in their angry manipulations, in their negative strengths and human weaknesses. This is not light reading but it is potent and powerful, an evocation of the lengths to which the very poor can be driven. Lyle Henderson, son of the Job-like Sydney, narrator of the family history is a most believably tortured and loving soul. One hopes, throughout this book, for affirming moments that never materialize. Yet there is such truth here that I found it impossible not to keep reading.
I am dismayed that I didn't know of the award-winning David Adams Richards before reading this book, but I will certainly be reading his other books at the first possible opportunity. The author's talent is rare and wonderful; his eye is clear and he wastes no time on frilly adjectives. This is prose (and truth) at its purest--a truly remarkable achievement.
My highest recommendation.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just for laughs. Feb. 13 2003
There is a quote, that I must have picked up somewhere, that says that you can tell art is good when it stays with you. When those scenes from a certain film, that line of poetry, or that section of a novel comes back into your head time and time again - it's a sure sign that the work is great.
For me this is one of those books. The number of times it has come into my life and my thoughts I cannot count.
I think it might have broken my heart.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Misfortunes of biblical proportions Dec 4 2001
If I was rating this book on the writing alone, it would certainly be worth five stars. However as the other reviewers have stated this book is ripe with painful almost unbearable material, and the sheer difficulty of slogging through the misfortunes of the Henderson family makes for some mighty depressing reading. You will likely find yourself saying "Enough already, how much more can these poor people take!" That said this is still an excellent book, and well worth your time to read. Just remember if you are looking for a "feelgood" read this is probably not the book for you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A most stirring read June 3 2002
Although fictional, Mercy among the children portrays what could be a real life drama. From beginning to end, Richards shows great insight and understanding of human nature. His characters through the generations are believable and consistent. The issues of Morality and Justice intertwined throughout the story lines evoke strong emotions. This was a book I couldn't put down and when finished, wanted to share with others. It was easy to read, even though the themes continues to haunt.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review March 16 2006
By A Customer
The author really held my interest, I had difficulty putting the book down. I kept expecting that something good surely would happen to the characters as one tragedy followed another. It was a depressing book although well written.
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By Delikiz
I believe that I can easily say this is one of my all time favorite reads. It is wonderfully written, the life philosophy it portrays is ideological but many times it gives you a painful feeling for what is happening to the Henderson family.
The Hendersons seem to go through many hardships throughout their lives. Both husband and wife, and their two children, from the day they first interact with society they feel they are different, or even outcasts.
Sydney refuses to fight back, or think badly about anybody, even his greatest "enemies" though they put him through hell. He insists to be there for them when they need help, and to be kind to them whenever their paths may cross. His son Lyle, and the narrator of the story, witnesses that his father's niceness does not pay back, "the others" continue on hurting them, and plotting for Sydney's fall. Lyle decides to be different from his father, that he will always fight back and that he is not "fearful" like his father, and nobody will ever hurt him or his family again. But as Lyle gets older, he sees that his philosophy of fighting back also does not help him in life. On the contrary events that progress always makes him think about his fathers words "He who hurts others hurts himself."
It is definitely a book that most will enjoy reading, but if you are looking for a light read happy book, you might want to pass this one. It is a light read, because it's so well written but it is not a very happy book. I strongly recommend everybody to read this Canadian Giller prize winning novel from David Richard Adams.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars mercy
I loved this book. I loved the characters- especially Percy. I loved how it kept me in suspense until the last page. Read more
Published 1 month ago by barb
3.0 out of 5 stars Three times and you're out!
This is the third time I have tried to read this book, and the third time I will put it down without completing it.
To me it was very negative. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Shirley G.
5.0 out of 5 stars life changing
This is the best book I have read so far in my 49 years. The author must have lived many lives in order to have portrayed humanity so perfectly. Read more
Published on Jan. 13 2011 by laurie battersby
2.0 out of 5 stars Strong Writing Weakened by Poorly written characters
Richards has an engaging writing style. It's simple and direct. The plot however concerns a family victimised by townsfolk you'd see in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Read more
Published on Jan. 31 2008 by Mr. Martin Leidig
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, deserves 7 stars
I'm not being over the top, when I say that this book is one of the best I have ever read. An incredible piece of writing, I found it hard to put down. Read more
Published on Jan. 29 2004 by Holden
5.0 out of 5 stars Human Nature
I usually do not read a lot, nor do I enjoy reading a Canadian novel, however from the second I picked this book up, I found it incrediably diffucult to put it back down. Read more
Published on Oct. 14 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars disappointing
I was disappointed in this book. I fail to understand how it could have been given the Giller prize. Read more
Published on April 14 2003 by lisa
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful/Haunting Story
It has been over two years since I have read this book - to see the names of these characters again (Sydney, Lyle, Percy etc.) brings to mind why I liked this book so much ... Read more
Published on Jan. 8 2003 by Gerard MacLellan
4.0 out of 5 stars Could Not Put It Down
As other reviewers point out, this book is challenging, but in the end, you can't put it down. The characters are chillingly real and indisputably tough. Read more
Published on Feb. 21 2002
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