Transpose Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure to New Brunswick's rugged Miramichi River. Surround Job with loose fists, malicious boots, and cold, gallon wine. Invite the Macbeths over for drinks. Add a lame dog named Scupper Pit and you've got the raw ingredients of David Adams Richards's Mercy Among the Children. Set in an isolated, wind-besieged house with bullet holes in the tarpaper walls, Richards's novel wonders-- pointedly, beautifully--whether goodness is merely a luxury.
At the age of 12, having borne more suffering in his child's body than any adult should endure, Sydney Henderson vows never to harm another human soul. Turning his back on the violent alcoholism of his upbringing, self-educated Sydney wins the honest respect of the beautiful Elly and the children they bear. Honest respect, however, is rarely a match for fear and base human opportunism. Manipulated, attacked, and abused by a small community eager for a scapegoat, Sydney loses his job, the health of his wife, and, most importantly, the respect of his son Lyle. "There is no worse flaw in man's character," Richards knows, "than that of wanting to belong."
The superb, controlled, and unapologetic Mercy Among the Children is nothing less than an inquiry into human strength. Richards uses the crack of ribs on a frigid night to remind us of the opportunistic populism of much so-called morality. Mercy, which shared Canada's premier fiction award, the Giller Prize, with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, combines the hound dog's attention to locale of fellow Maritimer Alistair MacLeod with the quotidian insight of countryman Timothy Findley's The Wars, especially its reminder that the emotions behind war also drive fights over who should scrub the dinner dishes. --Darryl Whetter