Shades of Mercy: A Maine Chronicle
Any number of novels start this way: an older woman, wanting to reveal elements of her youth to her daughter or granddaughter, jumps to a flashback and tells her story in the first person. It’s a good, solid framework.
In SHADES OF MERCY, the narrator, Mercy Millar, takes us back to 1954 and her family’s potato and vegetable farm on the edge of Watsonville, Maine, near the Canadian border. Right off the bat, it’s obvious that the local Maliseet tribe plays a critical role in the story. On page one you learn that they live “in the Flats, built over trash in our town dump.” Unlike other locals, Mercy’s father --- the book’s Rock of Gibraltar --- is willing to hire the Native Americans as day laborers. Little does he suspect that his 15-year-old Mercy is romantically attached to one of the brightest and best: 16-year-old Mick. (I wish Mercy’s romance had been when she was 17 rather than 15; in two generations our sensibilities have changed.)
"The book’s critical crisis revolves around deeply rooted racial injustices, prejudices and tensions between whites and American Indians. Here is where the book shines."
The book’s critical crisis revolves around deeply rooted racial injustices, prejudices and tensions between whites and American Indians. Here is where the book shines. More Maliseet characters walk onto the stage, and you get a glimpse into their lives, the injustices they’ve suffered for generations, the unhealthy way they’ve responded. You see the town’s people marginalize them farther afield.
The crisis erupts when one of Mercy’s slightly older friends, Marjorie Carmichael, runs off with her Maliseet boyfriend. The note she leaves behind is vague. Is she pregnant? Is she in harm’s way? Mr. Carmichael --- the town’s most influential businessman and the book’s bad guy --- imagines the worst and makes wild threats. His anger at the Maliseet in general endangers Mick and fuels the plot, which gradually digs deeper into layers of personal and regional history. Mercy’s ill-advised romance is interrupted. The devastating 1954 Hurricane Edna, true to real life, shakes down the town. Christian goodness prevails, sometimes through channels that might surprise the main characters, all born and bred as Baptists.
I particularly liked one description of prayer, as explained by Mercy’s mom to Mercy’s friend, Molly Carmichael. “I just took the words that were pent up in my heart and spilled them out into the ear of God. You know any of us can do that. He is always waiting for us to be with Him.” That line right there made me glad to have read the book.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on December 18, 2013