Mercy Among the Children

Paperback | August 21, 2001

byDavid Adams Richards

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Mercy Among the Children received effusive praise from the critics, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and won the Giller Prize. It was named one of 2000’s best books, became a national bestseller in hardcover for months, and would be published in the US and UK. It is seen, however, as being at odds with literary fashion for concerning itself with good and evil and the human freedom to choose between them — an approach that puts Richards, as Maclean’s magazine says, firmly in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Author Wayne Johnston recounts hearing Richards read in 1983 and being struck by his unqualified love for every one of his characters, even though “it was not then fashionable to love your characters”. Pottersfield Portfolio editor Tony Tremblay calls Richards the most misunderstood Canadian writer of the century, and a “great moralist”, comparing him to Morley Callaghan, Kafka and Melville.

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.

A compassionate, powerful story of humanity confronting inhumanity, it is a culmination of Richards’ last seven books, beginning with Road to the Stilt House. It takes place in New Brunswick’s Miramichi Valley, like all of his novels so far, which has led some urban critics to misjudge his work as regional — a criticism leveled at Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Emily Bronte in their own day. Like his literary heroes, Richards aims to evoke universal human struggles through his depiction of the events of a small, rural place, where one person’s actions impact inevitably on others in a tragic web of interconnectedness. The setting is extremely important in Richards’ work, “because the characters come from the soil”; but as British Columbia author Jack Hodgins once told Richards, “every character you talk about is a character I''ve met here in Campbell River”.

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From the Publisher

Mercy Among the Children received effusive praise from the critics, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and won the Giller Prize. It was named one of 2000’s best books, became a national bestseller in hardcover for months, and would be published in the US and UK. It is seen, however, as being at odds with literary fashion for concerning itself with good and evil and the human freedom to c...

From the Jacket

Believing he may have accidentally killed a friend, Sydney Henderson makes a pact with God. If God will spare the boy's life, Sydney will never again harm another human being.In the years that follow, the self-educated, brilliant and now almost pathologically gentle Sydney holds true to his promise. Yet others in the small rural community in New Brunswick view Sydney's pacifism as an opportunity t...

David Adams Richards was born in 1950 in Newcastle, New Brunswick, the third of six children in a working-class family. Though he didn’t grow up as poor as Lyle, he knew something about feeling different in a rural community, having a “townie” father who owned a movie theatre and suffered from narcolepsy. He found his calling at the age of fourteen, after reading Oliver Twist, and embarked on a life of extraordinary ...

interview with the author

Can you tell us how you became a writer?

Read Oliver Twist when I was 14 — never wanted to do anything else after that.

What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?

It’s a book with one question. When is turning against others necessary. It is a question asked by two people, Sydney and Lyle. And in their struggle all society is examined from top to bottom.

What is that you’re exploring in this book?

Many themes and many favourite characters. One of the major themes is how modern men and women have mistaken public opinion for truth, and have at times allowed this to diminish their better natures.

Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?

Realize that this is a study as much of love as hate, as much of joy as sorrow. Elly and Sydney are not the victims here – those who torment them and order their trial are.

Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?

Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Bronte, Alden Nowlan, Alistair MacLeod, and many others.

If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?

I’d be dead from over-fishing and over-hunting and over-curling.

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?

I can’t imagine writing War and Peace.

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Format:PaperbackPublished:August 21, 2001Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385259956

ISBN - 13:9780385259958

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Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gripping but humbling Excellent book that kept me enthralled to the last page. It makes you realise that actions in life can dictate the luck or misfortunes of everyone and sometimes you have no control. My emotions followed each character every page turn.
Date published: 2015-02-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Depressing with an unreliable narrator. Sidney Henderson staunchly keeps a childhood promise to never harm another soul. His pacifism, as well as his family’s history, make life emotionally, socially, and economically brutal for his wife – the meek Elly and their three children: Lyle, Autumn, and Percy. Things fold in oppressively when a boy is killed in their rural community and Sidney is blamed. The unrelenting, almost unbelievable depression of this story kept me reading, hoping for redemption. I found Lyle’s narrative very suspect. His language, and his knowledge of conversations and occurrences were disjointed with his character.
Date published: 2014-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mercy Among the Children Very moving read. I sensed I was with Lyle all the way and I wish I could have yet followed when he finally left for good.
Date published: 2014-09-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Tough read Certainly a difficult read for anyone; the tough reads though are the most worthwhile. Very strong and accurate descriptions of the provincial layout and people with their vernacular. So, so much snow! Characters torn by their allegiances sown together in a tight story of hope.
Date published: 2014-09-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from MERCY AMONG THE CHILDREN Amazingly heartfelt and touching - wonderful read.
Date published: 2014-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Heartwrenching and beautiful I picked up this book because I had to read something for my English class and I must say, its extraordinary. My expecatations for this novel were low; restricted to limited Canadian authors in my school library made me think of this novel as juvenile. I was greatly mistaken. The characters contained so much depth. "Sydney Henderson is a passive man" is an understatement. He's a pushover to the last degree. The first half of the novel focuses on him and his morals and ideals in life. You can't help but think "He's a complete coward" at some point in the novel. His son Lyle, can't disagree more with his father. He rebels, and discards his father's teachings. This novel shows the two sides of man and how each and every one of us has the ability to do the right thing but are unable to. Richards presents the story in the most beautiful way. It has been a long time since I last cried while reading. The only thing I disliked was the underlining of religious preaching in his texts which made me pull away slightly. I dont reccomend this to anyone simply because it is a heavy read and taxing on the heart.
Date published: 2010-09-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Like seeing a car accident... Another Canada Reads 2009 contender (I recently blogged about another one called The Outlander) that I read for my book club. But unlike The Outlander, I did not care for this one. Taking place in rural New Brunswick during the 1980’s and 90’s, the story follows the Henderson family as they eke out a meager living from trapping and working for the local bigwig, Leo McVicer. Sidney Henderson and Connie Devlin were twelve when they were shoveling snow off the roof of the local church and began arguing and the ensuing fight resulted in Connie falling and Sydney thinking that he’s dead. He wasn’t but in the time it took for Sydney to realize Connie was okay, Sydney promised God that he would never do another thing to harm another human. Making that promise was much harder to live with than it seemed at the time. The rest of the book deals with the challenges Sydney, his wife and children face as they deal with the repercussions of this oath. I read this novel for my book club – there’s no way I’d have finished it otherwise. It’s so bleak – it’s worse than depressing. I can take the poverty, but the child abuse and neglect, no. The characters were at various times cowardly, weak-kneed, fundamentally evil, selfish, spineless, pathetic, helpless, etc. The few that did do something kind for another person seemed to be motivated by guilt rather than any altruistic sensibility. And really, do bad things actually happen that often to people or are they offset even occasionally by good things? This book won the Giller Prize in 2000. Those judges must love wallowing in misery. Don’t get me wrong – the writing is good and the story is told well. But it’s like constantly picking the scab from a wound – it never gets better and sometimes even becomes infected, but you can’t stop picking even if it’s painful. Well, this whole book was one gaping wound. But hey, some people just love this kind of book – I’m just not one of them.
Date published: 2009-04-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Humanity so real it hurts. This remarkable novel is one of the most profoundly sad and difficult fiction reads I've encountered in a long time. I would remind myself that it was a work of fiction, and feel grateful. Richards creates characters that evoke empathy in ways that were completely unexpected. Yes, I felt empathy with the unfortunate Hendersons -- Sydney the father who made a pact never to knowingly "hurt" only to scar his young son Lyle in ways he never truly understood. And Lyle, the boy so determined to become different than his father, and yet was so like him he hid himself away. But I also empathized with those characters whose behaviours were abominable -- which surprised me and I credit that to the exemplary story-telling skills that Richards employs. This book made me feel ashamed -- ashamed of the many times I overlook poverty in my own community and ashamed of the complacency with which I accept my comfortable lifestyle as deserved. A truly remarkable novel.
Date published: 2009-03-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The worst book I have ever read. I don't say that lightly. I don't even have a novel that is looking in from second place. I read constantly, but this is the first time I feel visceral anger at a novel. Every time someone was about to do something cruel to the Hendersons, there is a 5 page introspection as to why they are going to do it. And I still never understand their motivations. I have been trying to find a friend willing to read this book in order to find out if it is just me. Unfortunately, I think I have made my prejudices against this book to clear and nobody wants to.
Date published: 2009-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much Deserving of Five Stars! From start to finish, I could find no fault with this book. It quickly pulls the reader into its wonderfully woven web of deceit and hardships, love and hate, regret and redemption. Set in a time when the Catholic Church still looms ever present and ever powerful, a classic struggle of good verses evil plays out between the Hendersons and the Pits; the Lumber Lord McVicer and the little men who struggle to make a living. The manufactured lies ran rampant against the one man, Sydney Henderson, who is truly good; a man who has sworn a pact with God, never to harm another soul. I found it incredulous that these small town people (especially those in authority) were more than willing to believe the worst about one of their own. No matter what Sydney does to help his fellow neighbours, he is continually beaten down like a clown punching bag. Even when his own life and the heart of his family are threatened, Sydney remains true to his pact. Though the lines between good and evil are well defined, the more you get to know and understand the characters who reside in this book, the more you will care about them, even the most retched and hateful of the lot. The Henderson children: Lyle, Autumn, and little Percy, will linger long after you put this book to rest.
Date published: 2008-07-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Interesting... The writing in itself was quite decent and kept your interest. However the storyline itself was miserable beyond all reckoning.
Date published: 2008-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from THE BEST BOOK EVER! I have read a lot of fiction, and this book is without a doubt the absolutely best novel I have ever read in my life! I thought Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird was unrivalled, but Mercy Among The Children beats even that! It is the saddest, most touching, and best-written novel I have ever come across; and it will change the way you see and treat people. It is extremely thought-provoking, and did I mention - VERY sad... But an absolutely astoundingly amazingly brilliantly excellent book. I give it six stars.
Date published: 2007-06-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mercy Among the Children Wow. This book was so full of small town friction. I found it hard to accept that Sydney wouldn't stand up to the rest of the town. His family suffered so much! I can't even imagine what that kind of poverty would be like, in this decade. Sad and frustrating but it was a satisfying read...
Date published: 2005-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought provoking The anger and sorrow in this book is a little overwhelming. I found it refreshing for the hero not to be leading a charmed life. This is a story of how people live and how we treat each other. I admired the courage of Sidney for standing by his pact with God but felt a lot of sadness for the suffering of his family. For part of this book I felt anger toward Sidney and sadness for Lyle's suffering but over time I found myself feeling admiration for a man who stood by his word. All he had for his family was the strength of his integrity. This book is well worth every minute you spend reading it. It is the kind of book you really never want to end.
Date published: 2005-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just finished Like 'Fall on your knees', I had to keep reminding myself this was fiction or I wouldn't have made it through. Nonetheless, it made me cry, the characters are the embodiment of us all. Amazing writing style. When I've recovered, I will go back for more.
Date published: 2004-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Hardy lives again - in New Brunswick! One of the back cover reviews of this book compares it to Thomas Hardy. How true! I was annoyed that the Henderson family seemed incapable of fighting back - father was convinced that all would work out according to God's plan. Well, I agree with the son, Lyle. Father was a fool. A good man, even perhaps a saint but a fool none the less. The book is interesting and worth reading, but be prepared for sadness and grief. I found that there were, like Hardy. too many co-incidences. Read Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure and you will. I think, agree with me.
Date published: 2003-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredible I have put this novel on the top of my list. What an incredibly talented writer Richards is! Sydney invaded my thoughts for a long time after I had closed the book, and is a character I will never forget. I was so moved by this story, and often found myself weeping for the pain endured by Sydney and his family. Richards has given us a true depiction of how humanity can be so cruel, and yet how personal conviction can withstand unrelenting persecution. A beautiful story.
Date published: 2003-05-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Witness human nature at its best and its worst In this Giller Prize-winner, narrator Lyle Henderson tells the story of his family in small-town NB. As a child, his father Sydney vowed to God that he would never harm a soul and he holds true to that promise. Others see this as mere weakness and pity him or see it as an opportunity to take advantage of him. Witnessing this as a child, Lyle takes a different and more aggressive attitude towards the world, and we witness how it all works out for both of them. An intriguing writing style and fascinating characters. Both story and characters are drawn differently than I'm used to, but it was nice to have something different as a challenge, and it was still incredibly realistic and interesting. The narration by Lyle is also different. Can a book be depressing and uplifting at one time? Read Mercy Among the Children to find out!
Date published: 2002-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent This is a very good book. One word of advice - go back and read the beginning when you're done. It ties everything together very nicely.
Date published: 2002-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bravo An excellent choice for Heather's Picks. I recommend it to everyone I talk to. When you try to paraphrase it for someone it sounds very depressing (father of very poor family is falsely accused of several things and the book deals with the effect this has on the family). For some strange reason I found it uplifting and very filling, as though I'd just pulled myself away from the table after a wonderful meal. I'm glad Heather pointed it out to me!
Date published: 2002-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Touching Description of Humanity This book paints a tragic picture of how a family can be destroyed by a hatefull society. Wonderful novel, one of the most touching i have ever experienced.
Date published: 2002-08-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very Challenging Read This was a book chosen for our book club. I was actually looking forward to this book because I had read the cover before. The last time I felt this worn out reading was in high school. If you are able to pass this one up. It may be award winning but it was the longest read of my life.
Date published: 2002-03-28

Extra Content

Read from the Book

The small Catholic churches here are all the same, white clapboard drenched with snow or blistering under a northern sun, their interiors smelling of confessionals and pale statues of the Madonna. Our mother, Elly Henderson, took us to them all along our tract of road — thinking that solace would come.In November the lights shone after seven o'clock on the stained-glass windows. The windows show the crucifixion or one of the saints praying. The hills where those saints lived and dropped their blood look soft, distant and blue; the roads wind like purple ribbons toward the Mount of Olives. It is all so different from real nature with its roaring waters over valleys of harsh timber where I tore an inch and a half of skin from my calves. Or Miramichi bogs of cedar and tamarack and the pungent smell of wet moosehide as the wounded moose still bellows in dark wood. I often wanted to enter the world of the stained glass — to find myself walking along the purple road, with the Mount of Olives behind me. I suppose because I wanted to be good, and my mother wanted goodness for me. I wanted too to escape the obligation I had toward my own destiny, my family, my sister and brother who were more real to me than a herd of saints.My father's name was Sydney Henderson. He was born in a shack off Highway 11, a highway only Maritimers could know — a strip of asphalt through stunted trees and wild dead fields against the edge of a cold sky.He did poorly in school but at church became the ward of Father Porier. He was given the job of washing Porier's car and cleaning his house. He was an altar boy who served mass every winter morning at seven. He did this for three years, from the age of eight to eleven.Then one day there was a falling-out, an "incident," and Father Porier's Pontiac never again came down the lane to deliver him home, nor did Father ever again trudge off to the rectory to clean the priest's boots. Nor did he know that his own father would take the priest's side and beat him one Sunday in front of most of the parishioners on the church steps. This became Father's first disobedience, not against anything but the structure of things. I have come to learn, however, that this is not at all a common disobedience.Back then, harsh physical labour seemed the only thing generations of Canadians like my grandfather considered work. So by thirteen my father wore boots and checked jackets, and quit school to work in the woods, in obligation to his father. He would spend days with little to comfort him. He was to need this strength, a strength of character, later on. He had big hands like a pulpcutter, wore thick glasses, and his hair was short, shaved up the side of his head like a zek in some Russian prison camp.He worked crossing back and forth over that bleak highway every day; when the June sky was black with no-see-ums, or all winter when the horse dung froze as it hit the ground. He was allergic to horses, yet at five in the morning had to bring the old yellow mare to the front of the barn — a mare denied oats and better off dead.My grandfather bought a television in 1962, and during the last few years of his life would stare at it all evening, asking Sydney questions about the world far away. The light of the television brought into that dark little house programs like The Honeymooners, The Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Untouchables; and glowed beyond the silent window into the yard, a yard filled with desolate chips of wood.My grandfather Roy Henderson would ask Dad why people would act in a movie if they knew they were going to be shot. He would not be completely convinced by my father's explanation about movie scripts and actors, and became more disheartened and dangerous the clearer the explanation was."But they die — I seen them.""No they don't, Dad.""Ha — lot you know, Syd — lot you know — I seen blood, and blood don't lie, boy — blood don't lie. And if ya think blood lies I'll smash yer mouth, what I'll do."As a teen my father sat in this TV-lightened world; a shack in the heat of July watching flies orbit in the half dark. He hid there because his father tormented him in front of kids his own age.I have learned that because of this torment, Father became a drunk by the age of fifteen.People did not know (and what would it matter if they had known?) that by the time he was fifteen, my father had read and could quote Stendhal and Proust. But he was trapped in a world of his own father's fortune, and our own fortune became indelibly linked to it as well.

Bookclub Guide

Can you tell us how you became a writer?Read Oliver Twist when I was 14 — never wanted to do anything else after that.What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?It’s a book with one question. When is turning against others necessary. It is a question asked by two people, Sydney and Lyle. And in their struggle all society is examined from top to bottom.What is that you’re exploring in this book? Many themes and many favourite characters. One of the major themes is how modern men and women have mistaken public opinion for truth, and have at times allowed this to diminish their better natures.Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book? Realize that this is a study as much of love as hate, as much of joy as sorrow. Elly and Sydney are not the victims here – those who torment them and order their trial are.Which authors have been most influential to your own writing? Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Bronte, Alden Nowlan, Alistair MacLeod, and many others.If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?I’d be dead from over-fishing and over-hunting and over-curling.If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?I can’t imagine writing War and Peace.