Mercy Among the Children

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At the age of twelve, Sidney Henderson, in a moment of anger, pushes his friend Connie Devlin off the roof of a local church. Looking down on Connie's motionless body, Sidney believes he is dead. Let Connie live and I will never harm another soul, Sidney vows. At that moment, Connie stands up and, laughing, walks away.

In the years that follow, the brilliant, self-educated, ever-gentle Sidney keeps his promise, even in the face of the hatred and persecution of his insular, rural...

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Mercy Among the Children: A Novel

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Overview

At the age of twelve, Sidney Henderson, in a moment of anger, pushes his friend Connie Devlin off the roof of a local church. Looking down on Connie's motionless body, Sidney believes he is dead. Let Connie live and I will never harm another soul, Sidney vows. At that moment, Connie stands up and, laughing, walks away.

In the years that follow, the brilliant, self-educated, ever-gentle Sidney keeps his promise, even in the face of the hatred and persecution of his insular, rural community, which sees his pacifism as an opportunity to exploit and abuse him. Sidney's son Lyle, however, witnessing his family's suffering with growing resentment and anger, comes to reject both God and his father and assumes an increasingly aggressive stance in defense of his family. When a small boy is killed in a tragic accident and Sidney is blamed, Lyle takes matters into his own, violent hands in an effort to protect the only people he loves: his beautiful and fragile mother, Elly; his gifted sister, Autumn; and his innocent, beatific brother, Percy. In the end, no one but Lyle can determine the legacy his family's tragedy will hold.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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Award-winning Canadian writer David Adams Richards now brings Americans his gentle and beautiful saga of family, love, and courage in this poignant novel. Sidney Henderson is an outcast in the rural Canadian mill town in which he has lived out his life. Committed to a pact he made with God never to raise his hand or voice to another living soul, Sidney is no match for the jealous, greedy, and conniving neighbors around him. His goodness, his love of books, and his determination to turn the other cheek, regardless of the cost, are confusing and threatening to them, and they regularly take advantage of his good nature. But his fellow townsfolk are especially incensed when Elly, one of the most beautiful and desirable young women in the community, chooses Sidney as her husband.

In Mercy Among the Children, the story of Sidney's love for his wife and two children, and of the price he must pay for refusing to abandon his principles, is told by Lyle, Sidney's grown son. A child who had initially renounced his father's values and who later struggled to understand and appreciate them, his point of view makes Richards' novel as much a story about the relationship between fathers and sons as it is about the nature of good and evil. Sidney and Elly are two of the most gracious and compassionate characters we've yet to encounter in contemporary literature. And their engrossing story of loss and strength is one that haunts. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Charles Foran
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.
Toronto Star
In its depth of feeling and fierce drive, Mercy Among the Children makes even the best of contemporary novels seem forced and pallid.
Vancouver Sun
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.
Observer
Wit and acuity mark out this Canadian writer of unaffected, unsentimental integrity.
Calgary Herald
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.
Globe and Mail
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.
Edmonton Journal
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.
Ottawa Citizen
His voice is one of the most powerful and necessary to be found in Canadian fiction.
National Post
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.
Gazette
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.
Maclean's
Mercy Among the Children is a masterpiece.
Kitchener- Waterloo Record
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.
Publishers Weekly
Unrecognized yet in the States, Canadian author Richards should win new readers here with this stark and affecting novel. A working man living in a shack in the "Stumps," an area of New Brunswick dependent on timber and tourism, Sydney Henderson has the unfortunate knack of arousing hostility among his neighbors by the unconscious display of his virtues. As a child, he was beaten by his father, sexually abused by his priest and once nearly killed a playmate. Out of such experiences he has forged a Tolstoyan moral credo, educating himself in literature and art and refusing to meet violence with violence. When Sydney marries Elly Brown, who is judged too beautiful to be matched with the town's poverty-stricken outcast, the scapegoating gets worse. Rebuffed by Elly when he attempts to rape her, a vindictive Stumps resident joins a scheme that eventually causes Sydney to be blamed for crimes he hasn't committed, including manslaughter and child abuse. The novel is narrated by Sydney's son, Lyle, who, in opposition to his father's stoic pacifism, craves revenge. In trying to exact it, he becomes feared, but is inwardly polluted. Worse, he injures those he loves most. The dogged narration takes some time to acquire dramatic tension, but eventually its unflagging rhythm becomes addictive. Though some readers may recoil from the book's frank depiction of pervasive poverty, Richards shows how powerfully the novel can operate as a mode of moral exploration a fact sometimes forgotten in the age of postmodern irony. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
There are few heroes and little cheer in this bleak novel set on the shores of the Miramichi River, where herbicides used by the local mill owner have leaked into the water, causing serious illness, miscarriages, and birth defects. Amid a cast of miscreants a rich, powerful landowner, self-righteous academics, manipulative bureaucrats, and condescending do-gooders Sydney Henderson stands out as a paragon of virtue among the exploited poor. Severely abused as a child, Sydney retreats into a world of books as solace from the grinding poverty, disregard for his self-education, false accusations of theft and murder, and outrageous government demands for payment of back taxes. But his stoic silence and his refusal to defend himself or exact revenge against his tormenters extend the poverty and ignominy to his long-suffering wife and children. Readers with sufficient fortitude for unrelenting misery and despair will find rewards in a harrowing and powerful novel that has already received Canada's prestigious Giller Prize for fiction. Recommended for all public libraries. Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A commitment to nonviolence provokes a lengthening history of violent and destructive reprisals in Toronto author Richards's thoughtful, unfortunately portentous tenth novel, which shared Canada's Giller Prize with Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. The intense narrative is framed by a Prologue and Afterword in which 25-year-old Lyle Henderson, a native of rural New Brunswick's Miramichi River towns, grapples with the legacy of his father Sydney's saintly passivity. We soon learn (from Lyle) that as a boy Sydney had impulsively pushed another boy off a church roof, and thereafter (seeing his "victim" unharmed) vowed to God that he would never harm another human being. Richards's backward-and-forward narrative, whose major events occur throughout the 1970s and early '80s, gradually discloses the paradoxical harm occasioned by Sydney's resolute pacifism: he's accused (falsely) of robbery, arson, sabotaging a newly built bridge, fathering an illegitimate child, and neighbors inflict abuse and worse as well on his docile wife Elly, gentle albino daughter Autumn and Christlike innocent son Percy, as well as on their increasingly frustrated sibling Lyle. Do bad things happen to good people? Oh, they do, gentle reader, they do. If you think all of this sounds like Dostoevsky filtered through Hardy and early D.H. Lawrence, you're not far afield. The best confrontational moments here do achieve genuine drama, and the large cast accommodates several vividly drawn eccentrics and malcontents (the best being the casually satanic Mat Pit, the Hendersons' tireless mortal enemy). But Richards overloads the story with far too many windy debates about religion and ethics, and can't resist making broadcaricatures of such peripheral figures as wealthy industrialist Leo McIver and ingenuous social worker Deirdre Whyne (!). Even worse are such thinly disguised authorial interpolations as Lyle's grandiose ham-fisted characterization of evil Mat Pit: "He-from a certain perspective-ruled our road and took that precious air from everyone else's dreams." Mercy Among the Children is of interest for the rugged integrity of its conception, design, and emotional intensity. Its prose is another story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743448185
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 10/8/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 0.85 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

When twelve-year-old Sidney Henderson pushes his friend Connie off the roof of a local church in a moment of anger, he makes a silent vow: Let Connie live and I will never harm another soul. At that very moment, Connie stands, laughs, and walks away. Sidney keeps his promise through adulthood despite the fact that his insular, rural community uses his pacifism to exploit him. Sidney's son Lyle, however, assumes an increasingly aggressive stance in defense of his family. When a small boy is killed in a tragic accident and Sidney is blamed, Lyle takes matters into his own hands. In his effort to protect the people he loves -- his beautiful and fragile mother, Elly; his gifted sister, Autumn; and his innocent brother, Percy -- it is Lyle who will determine his family's legacy.

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First Chapter

ONE

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.

In the summer of 1964 my grandfather was asked by his employer, Leo Alphonse McVicer, to take two Americans fishing for salmon at the forks at Arron Brook. Roy did not want to go; first, because it was late in the year and the water low, and secondly, because if they did not get a fish he might be blamed. Still, he was obligated.

"Get them a fish," Leo said, rooting in the bowl of his pipe with a small knife and looking up with customary curtness. Roy nodded, as always, with customary willingness. He took the men this certain hot day in August to a stretch of the river at the mouth of the brook, where the fish were pooled. He took his boy, Sydney, with him, to help pole the canoe up river and make the men comfortable. Then in the heat of midday, he sent Sydney north in the canoe to scout other pools for fish while he spent his time rigging the lines and listening to the men as they spoke about places as diverse as Oregon and Honolulu, while being polite enough to have no opinion when they spoke of the quality of Leo McVicer's wood and his mill.

Sydney poled back down river later that afternoon, looking in the water, and saying the fish had gone far up but that four salmon rested here, taking the oxygen from the cool spring, lying aside the boulders at the upper edge of the rip.

These men were important. They had been instrumental in helping Leo McVicer and Leo wanted to amuse them the way Maritimers do -- by pretending a rustic innocence under obligation to real human beings who have travelled from real places to be entertained.

So after three hours, Roy whispered to my father: "It would be better for Leo if they caught something -- if they are here to help finance the new barker for his mill."

And with those words, and with his shirt covered in patches of sweat and dust, and with his neck wrinkled in red folds from a life under lash to sun and snow, with his blackened teeth crooked and broken, showing the smile not of a man but of a tobacco-plug-chewing child, and with all the fiery sinewy muscles of his long body, he set in motion the brutal rural destiny of our family. Asking one of the men to give him a rod, he tied a three-pronged jig hook to it, had Sydney pole above them and then drift silently down through the pool without pole in the water, to point out where the salmon were lying. He threw the jig where the pool joined the spring and jerked upwards. All of a sudden the line began to sing, and away ran the fifteen-pound salmon jigged in the belly. After twenty-five minutes he hauled the spent cock fish in, killed it, and hooked another. The Americans were laughing, patting Roy on his bony back, not knowing what Sydney and Roy and the wardens watching them knew - that this exercise was illegal. The wardens watching stepped out, confiscated the rods, and seized the men's brand-new Chevrolet truck.

Leo McVicer heard of this at seven o'clock, when he got back from the mill. He paced all night in quiet almost completive fury. My grandfather went back to work early that Monday, willing to explain. But Leo fired him on the spot, even though Roy had sought to please him. For that I was to learn was Leo McVicer. Never minding either that the great Leo McVicer had often poached salmon for New Brunswick cabinet members and the occasional senator from Maine who partied at his house. This of course my grandfather did not know. He was kept from knowledge of the decisions of his great friend, as he was kept out of the dark rooms of his gigantic house.

To be fired after years of faith and work broke him, and he sat, as my own father once said, "like some poor sad rustic angel confined to hell."

Still, there was a chance -- if only one -- to work his way back into the fold. That summer Leo's men were unsatisfied and twice threatened a wildcat walkout. Finally McVicer beat them to it, and locked the sawmill's gate.

For the next two weeks things existed at a simmer between Leo and his men. They milled about the yard like atoms bouncing off each other, collecting and separating, collecting again, in pools of dusty, loitering brown-shirted figures, caught up at times in wild gestures, at other times almost grief-strickenly subdued. And within these two states there was talk of sabotage and revenge. No trucks or wood moved on or off McVicer property, and they stood firm when a welders' supply truck tried to enter, howling to each other and holding it back with their bodies, knowing little in life except what bodies were for, to be bent and shoved and twisted and gone against. At the end, the welders' truck was defeated. With a jubilant shout from the men into the empty September heat, the driver turned back and a lone truck of herbicide was left unloaded in the yard.

Finally Roy Henderson asked my father's advice. What could he do to make things better for Leo, and regain his job? There was one thing my father advised: "Go to the men." My father at fourteen stated, "Convince them to end their walkout." He added that Leo would be grateful -- the contracts filled, the herbicide unloaded, and Roy would be considered instrumental in this.

Roy headed into the woods on a warm September afternoon, with the pungent smell of spruce trees waving in the last of the summer heat. Just before he arrived onsite three men cut the locks to the gate. They stormed the truck and rolled the hundred barrels of herbicide off it, busted the barrels open with axes, and dumped them all, along with forty barrels of pesticide from the warehouse, into the upper edges of Little Arron Brook. The new barker was sabotaged, a flare was lighted to engage the men in more hellery, and a fire raged.

All of this was documented by a local reporter. A picture was taken that day long ago. Unfortunately, standing on the hulking ruin of smouldering machinery, a half-crazed drunken smile on his face, was my grandfather. It made the front pages of the provincial papers. He had not exactly done what my father had advised him to. In fact he looked like a vigilante from the deep south stomping the ruins of innocence. It was how they wanted him to look.

I have this picture still. As faded as it might be, the image is strikingly familiar, savage and gleeful, as if in one moment of wilful revenge Roy had forgotten the reason for his journey that afternoon.

Grandfather told Dad that he had tried to stop, not start, the conflagration. But his picture, even faded to yellow in an old archival room, shows him a rather willing participant in the mayhem. As if his grin leering from a newspaper at me, a grandson he never knew, was his only moment of bright majesty, caught in the splendid orb of a flashbulb, which signalled our doom for the next thirty years.

All others there that day got away when the police arrived but grandfather, too drunk to run, fell from the machine he was prancing on, and crawled on his knees to the police car to sleep.

The fire burned eleven hundred acres of Leo McVicer's prime soft timber land; timber subcontracted to the large paper mill. After my grandfather's picture was published, this fire became known locally as the "Henderson horror."

"Roy is bad -- his son is mad," the saying rose from the lips of everyone.

Meanwhile Roy Henderson, illiterate and frightened of people who weren't illiterate, had to go to court and pay a lawyer to defend him on both counts; that is, of poaching and the destruction of the barker. My father described Roy as he stood in court in a grey serge suit. He had lost his beloved television. He was confronted by a menacing prosecutor. He shook and cried. He was sentenced to three years. People teased him on the way out of court. Sydney, at fourteen, would make him biscuits and hitchhike to Dorchester to visit. But Roy, who had never been in jail in his life, refused to eat.

"Tell Leo I will not eat unless he forgives me," he said, sniffing, and sitting with his hands on his knees. His hair was turning grey and grey hair stuck out of his ears; his eyes were as deep set, his brow as wide, as some rustic prophet. But Sydney knew he was no prophet. He gave Sydney this message, as the sunlight came in on his prison trousers:

"Tell him that my life is in his hands -- and then see what he has to say. Tell him that the biscuits are hard now, and gettin' harder. Go on, fella -- get goin' -- "

My father left the prison, in his old red coat and torn gumboots, and ran all the way to Moncton -- thirty-seven miles. He caught the train, went to Leo -- not to the house, but to the office in McVicer's store that had served our community for years. The store was a monument to the class of people it served, where calendars of halter-topped blonde and blue-eyed girls shining Fords with Turtle Wax were hidden by Leo under the counter, and where diversified products were unknown but Humphrey work pants and boots, and corduroys for children, were sold, along with erasers and scribblers and pencils for school.

"I just lost me a hundred-thousand-dollar barker -- and a million-dollar lot," Leo said, without looking at Dad but looking through some invoices of clothing that he believed he had not ordered. "Now I have to clean up the barrels that got into the brook," Leo said, flipping the pages. "Everyone -- " flip, "the Sheppards -- " flip, "the Pits -- " flip, "the Poriers -- " flip, flip, "and everyone else said it was yer dad -- yer dad and no other dad -- and what do you want me to do?"

"Go visit him so he'll eat."

"Go visit him and cheer him up so he'll eat a good breakfast -- well, damn him."

My father went back to jail to see his dad. It was close to Christmas and snow had fallen and covered the cities and towns, the long raw southern New Brunswick hills were slick with ice.

My father pitied Roy yet could do nothing to rouse him. At first Roy did not believe that Leo, whom he had known since he was sixteen, wouldn't come to see him. He stood with his hands on the bars of the holding cell they had brought him to, looking out expectantly, like a child. He addressed his own child as if he was another species, a strange creature that one day had appeared in his little cabin, someone Roy himself never knew what to do with. And that is why often as not he addressed Sydney as "fella."

"Yer saying he won't come to see me, fella."

"That's what I'm saying, Dad. I'm saying that he won't come to see you."

"Let's just get this straight -- not that he's busy and might come to see me some other time -- or something like that there?"

"He won't come, Dad."

Roy's look was one of incomprehensible vacancy, as if from some faraway land he was listening to some strange music. Then his eyes caught his son's and became cognizant of what had been said, and perhaps also for the very first time who his son was, and what grace his son held. And realizing this he was shocked, and broken even more.

"Well I pity him then -- for doin' that -- is all I can say," Roy whispered. And he refused on principle -- perhaps the only one he had left (and to prove, just once, grandeur to his son) -- to eat.

A few weeks later, ill with pneumonia, Roy Henderson was taken to hospital on the Miramichi. He died there, and was buried in an old graveyard downriver, leaving my father alone.

I always said I would have done more. But my father felt he had done what he could. He never left his father alone. He walked 230 miles of road, appealing to McVicer to forgive. He fasted as his father did. He broke his fast only to take communion. He remained with his father to the end, even though it was a solitary vigil. But he would never seek revenge. Revenge, my father believed in his fertile brilliance, was anathema to justice.

After Roy's death Dad lived a primitive life, for what contact would he have with others? He would be teased whenever he went out to a dance; girls would string him along as a joke. He began to drink every day whatever he could find; to forget, as Sam Johnson has said, and I once found underlined in a book my father owned, "the pain of being a man."

The pain of being a man, or simply being cold or wet or tired. The old barn was long gone. His house was built of plywood and tarpaper. Its walls were insulated by cardboard boxes. It was fifteen by twelve and sixteen feet high -- so it looked like a shoebox standing on end. That is something that I like to remember. Most of his life was lived principally here.

He lived three years alone hiding from people who might do something for him -- I mean send him to foster care. But no one expressed any concern whatsoever on his behalf. Except for one man: Jay Beard, who lived in a trailer up on the main road and hired Dad to cut wood. At one time Dad got a job (as illegal as it must have been) planting dynamite to blow boulders at a construction site. He was not afraid and he was also nimble. He earned what was a good deal of money for him, and with it he bought both his mother's and father's graves their stones.

At eighteen he was coming home from a long hot day in a lobster boat on the bay, where he worked helping bait traps. His skin was burned by the sun and saltwater and his hands were blistered by the rope and the traps. But that day he met Jay Beard, who was selling off many of his books, books Jay had inherited from his dead brother and had himself never read. Beard was actually looking for my father to sell these books to. My father bought three hundred paperbacks and old faded hardcovers, the whole lot for twenty dollars, and brought them home by wheelbarrow.

Then in early fall of that same year Sydney, who in reading these books had given up drink, went to Chatham to see a professor about the chance at a university education. The professor, David Scone, a man who had gone to the University of Toronto, disliked the Maritimes while believing he knew of its difficulties and great diversity. Looking at my father sitting in his old bib overalls and heavy woollen shirt proved what he felt. And he commented that it might be better for Dad to find a trade. This was not at all contradictory to Dr. Scone's sense of himself as a champion of people just like Father. In fact, being a champion of them meant, in his mind, he knew them well enough to judge them. And something he saw in my father displeased him.

"Yes, I know you have come here with your heart set on a lofty education -- but look in another direction. A carpenter -- how is that? -- you seem like a man who would know angles." And then he whispered, as people do who want to show how lightly they take themselves, "It would not be as difficult for you as some things in here, philosophy and theology and all of that -- "

Scone smiled, with a degree of naive self-infatuation seen only in those with an academic education, shook his head at the silliness of academia, while knowing that his tenure was secure and every thought he had ever had was manifested as safe by someone else before him. My father never had such a luxury. There was a time my father would have been beaten by his own father if it was known that he read. Knowing this, tell me the courage of Dr. David Scone.

My father said that being a carpenter might be nice and he liked carpentry but that he liked books more. Outside, the huge Irish Catholic church rested against the horizon, the sun gleaming from its vast windows and its cavernous opened doors; its steps swept clean, its roof reflecting the stains of sunlight, while on the faraway hills across the river the trees held the first sweet tinges of autumn.

"Well, then -- you want to be a scholar, do you. So what books have you read, Sydney? Mystery -- science fiction -- Ray Bradbury -- well, there's nothing wrong with that at all, is there?" He smiled. My father was about to answer. Dr. Scone was about to listen but he was called away by the head of the department, a rather rotund priest with thick downy cheeks and a bald spot on the top of his head.

Father stood and nodded at Scone as he left. Then he walked home from Saint Michael's University and sat in his kitchen. He did not know how to go about qualifying for university. It had taken him five weeks to find the courage to do what he had done. Now he felt that the man had condescended to him. What surprised him was the fact that an educated man would ever do this. He had been innocent enough to assume that the educated had excised all prejudice from themselves and would never delight in injury to others -- that is, he believed that they had easily attained the goal he himself was struggling toward. He did not know that this goal -- which he considered the one truthful goal man should strive toward -- was often not even considered a goal by others, educated or not.

He had by that evening discovered his gross miscalculation. He was angry and decided to write a letter, and sat down in the kitchen and started to write to this professor, in pencil on an old lined sheet. But when the words came he realized a crime had taken place. (This is how he later described it to my mother.) The crime was that he had set out in a letter to injure someone else. He was ashamed of himself for this and burned the letter in the stove, sank on his bed with his face to the wall.

Later I came to hate that he did not send it, but it was noble. And what was most noble about it was that it would never be known as such. Nor did that in itself alleviate his suffering over what the professor had said, or his memory of the professor's self-infatuated smile when he said it. That is, like most spoken injuries, Father had to sample it not only at the time it had taken place but for days and even weeks after, and again each time this well-known professor was interviewed in the paper about Maritime disparage or his lifelong fight on behalf of First Nations rights. (Which became a lifelong fight at the same time it became a lifelong fight among his intellectual class, most of them ensconced in universities far away from any native man or woman.)

The fact that my father not only was a part of the demographic this professor was supposedly expert upon but had worked since he was a boy, and had his own ideas from years of violence and privation, made the sting ever sharper and fresher each time he heard Dr. David Scone lauded for his utter decency by our many gifted announcers on the CBC.

Yet by his honour -- my father's honour -- he could and did say nothing. Even when Dr. David Scone tried to influence my mother against him.

I know now it was because of an incident that happened when my father was a child of twelve. One day he and another boy were shovelling snow from the slanted church roof. The boy had robbed Dad's molasses sandwich and Dad pushed him. The boy fell fifty feet, and lay on his back, blood coming from his nose and snow wisping down over his face.

My father, perched high upon the roof next to the base of the steeple, was certain the boy had died. He did not believe in anything, had hated the priest after that certain incident, that falling-out I mentioned. But still he whispered that if the boy lived he would never raise his hand or his voice to another soul, that he would attend church every day. Every damn day. What is astounding is, as soon as he made this horrible pact, the boy stood up, wiped his face, laughed at him, and walked away. That boy was Connie Devlin.

I don't believe Devlin was ever hurt. I believe my father only thought he was. The bloody nose came when the boy fell, but was nothing to be upset over, and the boy liked the attention that happens when people think you are dead. I told my father this when I heard of his pact years later. I said, "Dad, you never touched the boy -- so therefore God tricked you into this masochistic devotion. God has made you His slave because of your unnatural self-condemnation."

My father never answered; he just turned and walked away. Connie Devlin was to plague Father all his life. And it was from that day forward my father's true life started. After that day, things happened to his life that showed, or proved to him at least, other forces.

What my father believed from the time his own father died was this: whatever pact you make with God, God will honour. You may not think He does, but then do you really know the pact you have actually made? Understand the pact you have made, and you will understand how God honours it.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2002

    Still reading

    What a novel. I'm almost at the end and I'm sad because I don't want it to end. I've become so engrossed with the characters I can almost feel their sorrow. Can't wait for this author to publish more!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2002

    Brilliant and masterful, a true work of art.

    Set around a poverty-stricken New Brunswick family, Mercy Among the Children moved me to tears more than one time. Yet it is not anything like the conventionally emotional novel: this piece of work uses real life and real images to evoke empathy in the reader. I found it a wee bit lengthy at times, but I do suspect that may be because I was so impatient to see what the outcome of the Henderson family's trials would be.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2002

    A heavy, affecting read

    Absent of the cheeky junk that dominates the shelves, this book depends instead on a strong storyline, a solid (if heavily drawn) cast of characters, and an irresistible family of poverty-stricken misfits. Far from sentimental, Mercy Among the Children still manages to elicit a powerful reaction from everyone I pass it on to. One man cried on the NYC subway!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2002

    Gotta get some sleep!

    My family is getting tired of hearing the patter of my feet at night as I lay awake waiting for them to fall asleep; gliding to the couch with my flashlight and Mercy Among the Children to pick up where I left off. Stark yes but colorful in a grey sort of way. Unforgettable characters built with few words through deeds alone. Very good. Satisfying after some of the mediocrity I have endured.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2012

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