I did not find Mercy Among the Children to be an easy read. In fact I found it to be quite painful which does not diminish the fact that this is an excellent, engrossing book. In many ways the writing is masterful and the characters the author has created are vividly alive; so alive I would not have been surprised if at any time I had looked up from my reading and found one of them sitting across from me smoking a cigarette. It is a book about power and money and morality and unjustifiable feelings of entitlement muddled together with a great deal of anguish and cruelty of the sort that could only be invented by ones closest acquaintances.
The story is about Sydney Henderson who lives in rural New Brunswick in a place called the Miramachi. As a child he nearly kills one of his friends by pushing him off a church roof. Seeing his friend lying motionless on the ground he makes a bargain with god promising to be a pacifist for the rest if his life if only his friend would be spared. His friend stands up and walks away and Sydney begins a life that could be described as the re-enactment of the Book of Job.
Sydney is orphaned, fends for himself in an old tar paper shack. He falls into a life of alcohol abuse but discovers books and in doing so pulls himself up out of that dark hole aspiring to acquire a university education. He seeks the advice of a condescending professor who crushes his hopes and advises him to go back and work as a labourer. There should have been redemption when Sydney met Elly who becomes his wife but jalousie and lust encircles them with ill will and resentment coming from those who think the beautiful Elly is too good for him. There is also the cloying concern of those who think that Elly, though sweet-tempered, is at the same time rather simple in her approach to life in the sense of not being worldly-wise and thus requiring the guidance of interfering do-gooders. Sydney and Elly have three children, Lyle, Autumn and Percy. Lyle the oldest, is confused by his father’s failure to defend himself for crimes he has not committed. The worst of these accusations is that he caused the death of a young man in the community while blowing up a bridge under construction allegedly motivated by having lost his job building that bridge. Lie is heaped upon lie, misery upon misery and never does Sydney speak up in his own defence. This passive behaviour angers and confuses Lyle who strives to be the opposite of his father by becoming a fighter and not just a fighter to defend himself but sometimes a fighter who picks a fight as a bully might; to show off the power of his own strength.
At about this point I had to take a break from Mercy Among the Children because there was just too much wretchedness for me to absorb. When I took it up again I broke a rule I have of not peeking ahead to get some clue as to how things will turn out. Then I finished the last hundred and fifty pages in one sitting not being able to stop turning the pages for even the length of time it would have taken to make a cup of tea.
This book is built around its fascinating cast of characters. These are middle class people who want to believe that Sydney Henderson is guilty of all that he has been accused because they equate his poverty with ignorance and lack of principles. Among this group there are those who actually committed the crimes that Sydney is accused of having carried out. It is amazing how the author has these people talk themselves into believing that it is for the greater good of everyone to have Sydney be accused of being a thief and a murderer and a saboteur rather than taking responsibility for their own misdeeds. How this is done is a feat of literary wizardry you will have to read for yourself, as it is so very admirable as well as very disturbing. It is disturbing because it is possible to see examples of similar behaviour in own daily lives when in some small way we judge someone because of the way they are forced to live due of circumstances beyond their control or maybe just plain bad luck.
I would not choose this book to take to the beach but I highly recommend it and apparently so do many others, as it is a multi award-winning piece of literary art.