Mercy Among the Children by David Adams RichardsI was having difficulty putting my thoughts and feelings into words when it comes to Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards. It’s a darkly depressing book but weaves a tale that really makes you feel compassionate towards the characters, even if you want to hate them.

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.

From the publisher, Anchor Canada (a division of Random House)

Exploring the relationship between father and son — Sydney and Lyle — David Adams Richards plays on the biblical notion that the son shall pay for the sins of the father. The thing that makes this incredibly interesting (and kept me reading despite the dark destitute of the characters’ future) is that the sins of the father, Sydney, are not always true. Sometimes people just blame him for things and due to his nature he doesn’t speak against them.

Set in a rural town in New Brunswick, David Adams Richards’ exploration of good versus evil doesn’t end with Lyle and Sydney. He looks into every character: Elly, Sydney’s wife; August, Lyle’s sister; Mathew and Cynthia Pit, their neighbours; Leo McVicer, Sydney’s boss; and more minor character such as Connie Devlin and Rudy Bellanger. Each character plays a part in the Henderson family’s battle with life.

Mercy Among the Children looks at three generations of the Henderson family living in a small town and the events (and people) that conspired against them. While the book does focus mainly on Sydney’s decisions (or inaction as it were) and Lyle’s hot-headedness, I was really impressed how David Adams Richards explored the regrets and subtleties of the other secondary characters.

For example, Leo McVicer has been a businessman and key part of the town’s economy employing most of the men either through his stores or McVicer Works. However, when it comes to light that the pesticides they were using are poisonous he stops using them (as recommended by the manufacturing company). Later, it comes to bite him in the butt when a child he practically raised organizes an investigation into the chemical use. You really feel sorry for McVicer because it wasn’t his fault exactly — everyone in the industry was using those chemicals at the time.

Sydney Henderson is an interesting character and I often had reactions like his son Lyle. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and say, “stand up for yourself! Protect your family even if you don’t care about your own pride/reputation.” It was shocking to see someone so passive despite the circumstances and events in his life. It’s very interesting to see how this affects Lyle as well as snowballs all of the future events.

The novel really has an uncanny ability to look at the best and worst of people, and yet leaves you feeling satisfied not depressed. Part of me does wish for a happy ending, but I am so satisfied with the way Mercy Among the Children came full-circle that I wouldn’t change a word.

  • Contender in the 2009 CBC Canada Reads
  • Finalist for the 2000 Governor General’s Literary Awards – Fiction
  • Co-winner of the 2000 Scotiabank Giller Prize (tied with Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje)
  • Nominee for the 2001 Trillium Book Award
  • Winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award – Author of the Year & Fiction Book of the Year 2001
  • Globe & Mail Best Book of the Year 2001