Being a parent is a full-time job: packing school lunches, carpooling, trips to the mall and planning birthday parties. And that’s just the easy stuff. There’s also making sure your kids feel secure and stay healthy --- both physically and emotionally. Not many people sign up for parenting thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park. But even the best of us get sidetracked --- and sometimes, that unintended split-second of neglect can cost us our kids.
In Heather Gudenkauf’s LITTLE MERCIES, Ellen Moore is one of those busy I-can-do-everything-and-anything parents. With two young children and a new baby, she has a lot to juggle. She’s also a social worker for the Department of Human Services, advocating for children from potentially abusive homes and working within the foster care system to make sure these kids stay protected and safe. When we meet Ellen, she’s racing to a client’s home in hopes of rescuing two siblings she suspects are being beaten by their mother’s boyfriend.
Like most of Ellen’s mornings, getting out the door wasn’t easy. She and her husband, Adam, had both overslept. She was late for a meeting at work, and someone needed to drop off Avery at daycare. Leah and Lucas were already in the kitchen, bickering about who would get the last Pop Tart, and Adam was heading out the door, mentioning something about a baseball game. In other words, the usual pandemonium.
"Like Gudenkauf’s other books...LITTLE MERCIES has a “ripped from the headlines” feel.... Gudenkauf does a fine job balancing out the mayhem with a large dose of good old-fashioned guilt and self-reflection on Ellen’s part."
Of course, that Ellen was trying to do too many well-intentioned things at once doesn’t excuse her failure to notice Avery strapped into the infant seat. It certainly doesn’t excuse her leaving Avery in the locked van in the scorching heat while she investigated the domestic disturbance case before heading to work. But when she hears the smash of her own car’s windows and sees a neighbor pulling out Avery’s already limp body and doing CPR, she knows that one small mistake could cost her not only her job, but her family as well.
Meanwhile, as Ellen’s life gets thrown into chaos --- including an arrest and snowballing court case, a potential jail sentence, the threat of her kids being taken away and thrown into foster care, and Avery’s frightfully unstable condition --- another story is unfolding. Told in alternating chapters (until the two narratives intertwine), the story of 10-year-old Jenny’s hardscrabble life begins to unravel.
Jenny lives with her well-meaning but consistently drunk father. There’s never enough to eat, clothes are hard to come by, and the slew of mostly lackluster girlfriends never stick around long enough for Jenny to form an emotional bond. But Jenny’s father is determined to make life better for her. The latest plan is to move from Nebraska to Iowa and start over.
Unfortunately, the two don’t get very far. While Jenny is waiting patiently on the bus, her father gets arrested for disorderly conduct at the bus station, leaving Jenny with no choice but to head to Cedar City on her own. Her new plan is to find her grandmother --- her mother’s mother --- and live with her until her father can get himself sorted.
Though it’s hard to imagine that a 10-year-old girl --- even one from a dysfunctional family --- would feel brave enough to travel to an unknown city alone, Jenny slowly finds her bearings. She meets a kind waitress named Maudene (coincidentally, Ellen’s mother) in a diner who offers Jenny a place to stay while she gets settled. And as Jenny’s story slowly seeps out, Maudene gradually pieces together Jenny’s sad predicament --- a father in jail, a newly deceased grandmother, and a mother who, unbeknownst to Jenny, lives close by but has no interest in rekindling a relationship with her daughter.
Like Gudenkauf’s other books --- ONE BREATH AWAY (a mass shooting at an elementary school), THESE THINGS HIDDEN (a golden girl with a prison sentence) and THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE (the disappearance of two girls) --- LITTLE MERCIES has a “ripped from the headlines” feel. From the hordes of news cameras that descend on Ellen’s family both in the hospital and at home, to the way Gudenkauf portrays Ellen’s detractors (those who condemn her for being an unfit mother), to the explosive showdown between Jenny, Jenny’s mother and abusive husband, and a gun, it all seems a bit sensationalized. How much can one group of people handle?
Then again, Gudenkauf does a fine job balancing out the mayhem with a large dose of good old-fashioned guilt and self-reflection on Ellen’s part. Here, for example: “All it would have taken was for me to stop and listen, really listen to what Adam was trying to tell me about how he put Avery in the van for me. If I would have just paused, pushed aside all the distractions of the morning, the worry of being late, everything could have turned out differently.” And here: “It was awful, [I] wouldn’t wish it on anyone and if I ever was able to be a social worker again, I would look at my clients a little bit differently, with a bit more empathy.” If only. I should have. I’ll never again…
Luckily, both Jenny’s and Ellen’s situations turn out relatively okay in the end, given where they started at the beginning of the book. If anything, the lessons they both learn --- the need to be mindful, the willingness to be patient, the importance of friends and family --- are those we as readers could pay attention to as well. As both Jenny and Ellen learn, everyone makes mistakes --- it’s what you do afterward that counts.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on June 25, 2014