In this delightful romp through the daily life of a small-town Southern woman, Margaret A. Graham gets a chance to have some fun with her characters while poking a bit of fun at the church --- something I happen to adore. Esmeralda is an immediately likable character, an older woman who does not abide nonsense and takes utter pleasure in dispensing her always practical advice to others, even those "others" she knows will never heed her counsel. Mainly, of course, church folk.
But, as Graham wisely knows, it's those very same church folk who will be the ones to rally to support people in need and distress, as the church's Willing Workers do throughout --- helping those who grieve, those who are saddled with overwhelming responsibilities, those who need a warm casserole as much as a warm hug. Esmeralda finds herself on the receiving end of their generous gifts of time and food when she assumes responsibility for a woman dying of AIDS.
Throughout the book, Esmeralda writes letters to her lifelong friend Beatrice, a literary device Graham uses skillfully. Through the letters back and forth, we gain greater insight into what makes Esmeralda tick, and through her friend we eventually see a flawed aspect of her nature.
Anyone who has lived in the South, the real South, is bound to be amused by Graham's ear for the "language" --- the way real Southerners express their thoughts, their choice of words, and their charming way of simply making up words. Thus Esmeralda advises Beatrice that the "onliest doctor" she needs is Dr. Scholl, seeks out a "notary republic", and quotes Charles "Splurgeon" throughout. The book also has some hilarious moments, as when Esmeralda must make up a name for the dying Hispanic woman and can only think of "Carmen Miranda" (which admittedly may not be funny to those too young to remember her), or when she tries to resolve an immigration problem, gets shuffled from one office to another in the courthouse, and finally takes it upon herself to enter a door marked Problem Resolution Office, only to discover 45 minutes later that it's an IRS office.
And Graham's use of imagery shines throughout the book: "Her pauses are like when the washing machine stops then starts up again," Esmeralda says about Beatrice. Graham has most assuredly done her share of laundry, because only someone who has listened out for the end of the cycle countless times can relate to the way those pauses sound like a person holding her breath. "If Clara can't climb down your family tree to the bare roots, you don't get no clean bill of health," she says of another church member.
But there are some missteps. Esmeralda uncharacteristically comments on the number of Christians killed and tortured around the world, something that doesn't sound like her but instead sounds like the author trying to educate her audience. Then there's the mandatory salvation scene, in which one character practically grills another to find out if she led a woman to the Lord in precisely the "right" way. That one really grated on me.
Finally, toward the end of the book, Esmeralda convinces a godly man named Carl that he should cut what she calls his "pigtail" (a ponytail, maybe?) because no woman would want a man with hair like that, and, as she tells him, "it don't look right for a Christian man to go around looking like a leftover hippie." Here's a kind, godly man, but he isn't quite up to snuff as a Christian example because he wears his hair wrong? I hope not. And I suspect there are plenty of women out there, even Esmeralda's age, who would gladly accept a ponytail on a thoughtful, caring man.
Despite those and other minor flaws, what it all comes down to is this: MERCY ME is an enchanting, fun read, and Graham is an author to watch. Let's hope she has more in mind for Esmeralda.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on February 10, 2012