Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Mercy Among the Children

byDavid Adams Richards

Paperback | August 21, 2001

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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”.

About The Author

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 ag...

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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Details & Specs

Title:Mercy Among the ChildrenFormat: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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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.

Editorial Reviews

"Richards is a painfully sharp observer, who possesses one of the most distinct and compelling voices in contemporary literature."—The Toronto Star"Richards has a wonderful ear for the cadence of the language, and his compassion for his poorest characters' misery is infectious — the best of Richards' work is dark in tone, both harshly realistic and lyrically sympathetic to the most disadvantaged members of society."—The Globe and Mail"At its best, Richards' work has a touch of greatness, yielding up reminders, sharp as wood smoke on an autumn evening, of both the pity and the glory of being human."—Maclean's"His voice is one of the most powerful and necessary to be found in Canadian fiction."—Ottawa Citizen"Wit and acuity mark out this Canadian writer of unaffected, unsentimental integrity."—The Observer (U.K.)"Mercy Among the Children is a major novel precisely because it disavows concern for the structure of things in any one place and time in favour of the structure of things for all places and times."—The Globe and Mail"David Adams Richards is perhaps the greatest Canadian writer alive ... Although Mercy Among the Children is unrelentingly tragic, as with most great tragedies the undertone is one of boundless hope."—Vancouver Sun"In its depth of feeling and fierce drive, Mercy Among the Children makes even the best of contemporary novels seem forced and pallid."—The Toronto Star"Mercy Among the Children explores major issues with passion and high seriousness. It aims for the heart, not the head. If you give yourself to the experience of reading it, it will reward you."—National Post"A wrenching, soaring read ... It compels the reader to ponder the cruelty and grace of our relationships with each other and with an invisible unknowable God."—The Calgary Herald"Mercy Among the Children is a masterpiece."—Maclean's"With Mercy Among the Children, David Adams Richards assures his place among the CanLit canon as one of this country’s greatest authors. Unrelenting, bleak and grim, the novel delivers its story with the force of an old testament prophet. Richards’s voice is consistently powerful as he relates this heartbreaking tale of generational poverty and abuse."—The Edmonton Journal"Mercy Among the Children is a major novel precisely because it disavows concern for the structure of things in any one place and time in favour of the structure of things for all places nad times. Literary fashions be damned; her is a fictional universe, fiercely imagined and brilliantly rendered, and everyone is welcome into it."—The Globe and Mail (Charles Foran)"…Richards makes a concentrated commitment to his plot and to his characters, who carry the book upward. It is passionately informed with his love and hate. He has a visceral belief in his story, and he never relents. His knowledge of the mind of evil is impressive."—The Gazette"It’s time to declare David Adams Richards Canada’s greatest living writer. The reason for this assertion is simple: Of all the country’s best writers he is the one who has steadfastly set out to do what all great writers do — define what it is to be human. And he has done this through a voice uniquely his own, influenced by neither literary taste nor reader fashion….His latest novel Mercy Among the Children is not only his most ambitious, it’s as close to a masterpiece as he has yet written."—Kitchener- Waterloo Record