Little Mercies

Little Mercies

by Heather Gudenkauf


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In her latest ripped-from-the-headlines tour de force, New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf shows how one small mistake can have life-altering consequences…

Veteran social worker Ellen Moore has seen the worst side of humanity—the vilest acts one person can commit against another. She is a fiercely dedicated children's advocate and a devoted mother and wife. But one blistering summer day, a simple moment of distraction will have repercussions that Ellen could never have imagined, threatening to shatter everything she holds dear, and trapping her between the gears of the system she works for.

Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has been living with her well-meaning but irresponsible father since her mother left them, sleeping on friends' couches and moving in and out of cheap motels. When Jenny suddenly finds herself on her own, she is forced to survive with nothing but a few dollars and her street smarts. The last thing she wants is a social worker, but when Ellen's and Jenny's lives collide, little do they know just how much they can help one another.

A powerful and emotionally charged tale about motherhood and justice, Little Mercies is a searing portrait of the tenuous grasp we have on the things we love the most, and of the ties that unexpectedly bring us together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780778316336
Publisher: MIRA Books
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Edition description: Original
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 244,476
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Heather Gudenkauf is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and Not a Sound. Heather lives in Iowa with her family.

Read an Excerpt

When people find out what I do for a living their first question is always about the most horrendous case of child abuse I've encountered. I can be at a backyard barbecue or at a New Year's Eve party or in the waiting room at the dentist's office, or my husband's baseball game. You must see so much, they say, shaking their heads, lips pursed in something like empathy, like I was the one who might have endured the beatings, the burns, the torrents of hateful words. Of course I don't share any details about my clients and their families. So much has been stripped from the children that stagger in and out of my orbit; the very least I can do is honor their privacy. Come on, people urge, tell me. It's bad, isn't it? Like I'm dangling some salacious gossip in front of them. Like I'm keeping mum because I don't want to offend their tender ears, upset their perfectly ordered worlds where all children are touched with gentle hands, spoken to with loving words and tucked warmly into beds with full stomachs.

Close your eyes, I once told the shortstop's mother and she did, almost quivering in anticipation of the gory details. She nodded in compliance, cocking her head in my direction, preparing for what I will reveal next. Will I tell her about Mariah Crane, the seven-year-old whose mother held her head under water until there was no chance that her damaged brain could ever catch up with her growing body? Or will I tell them about the twins? Everyone has heard about the Twin Case, as it's still known. Everyone wants to know more about the twins.

Now imagine the vilest things that can be done to a human being, I say. I let her think about this for a moment and I can see the slight spasm of revulsion skitter across her face. That's what I've seen. She opens one eye to see if I'll say anything else. But that's all I have for her.

The only people I talk to about the Twin Case are my husband and Joe Gaddey. I was a newly minted social worker, just out of graduate school when I moved back to my hometown of Cedar City, the second largest city in Iowa, just behind Des Moines with a population of about one hundred ninety-five thousand. My husband moved to Cedar City to teach high school history and coach baseball, having grown up in the tiny town of Broken Branch, Iowa, where everyone is related, if not by blood then by marriage. We met through mutual friends and eventually settled into married life, ready to change the world. In the end I have struggled to not let the case change me.

Adam and I hadn't even met yet when I was assigned my first social work case involving a set of six-year-old twin boys, a five-year-old girl, their mother, their father and a baseball bat. Only one of the boys survived. The family wasn't new to the system; I had inherited the case from my predecessor and arrived for the first of my scheduled visits just as the emergency personnel were bringing out the first stretcher. Joe Gaddey was the officer positioned outside the front door. In a daze I moved toward him.

"And you are?" he asked. I couldn't even speak, could only look up at him. I peeked around his solid girth, trying to peer into the house and was greeted with a terrible sight. I teetered on my high heels and grabbed on to his sleeve for support. "Whoa, now," he said, steadying me. "You don't want to see that."

"I'm their social worker," I said in a small voice. "What happened?"

"Their dad happened," he said in that wry way I have grown to appreciate over the years. I swallowed back the bile that had collected in my throat, willing myself not to vomit. I knew this job would be difficult, even heartbreaking, but nothing, nothing, had prepared me for this. I felt the police officer's gaze on me. He was massive. Six-three, two hundred and ten pounds of muscle, a thirty-six-year-old with a baby face and a sharp tongue. "You going to be okay?" he asked. We stood there for a moment. Me nodding my chin up and down like some maniacal bobblehead doll and the officer standing there uncomfortably. "You should probably call your supervisor," he finally said as the second, third and fourth stretchers emerged, shrouded in black body bags, two of which were child-sized.

"Yeah," I said, still nodding.

Every day I chronicle the monstrosities inflicted upon children in volumes of paperwork, in endless meetings, while testifying in court. I rarely talk to my husband about my clients anymore. He can see what kind of day I've had by the look on my face, the sag of my shoulders, how quickly I make a beeline to the bottle of pinot grigio I've reserved expressly for the more difficult days. On these days, Adam understands that there are no words and will gently replace my wineglass with our eleven-month-old daughter. Avery will wrap her chubby arms around my neck and press her petal-pink lips against my cheek so that I can smell the scent of apples on her breath. Whenever I come through the door it's like Christmas, her birthday and the Fourth ofJuly all at once, she is always so happy to see me. I could take comfort in this, and I do, but I see the same delight on the faces of the children I work with who are reunited with a mother or father. The same mothers or fathers who once slapped them so hard that teeth were loosened or grabbed them so roughly that bones were broken. In Avery I see the same spark that's in their eyes, the eruption of the same joyful grin. I knew you'd come back to me, their faces say. I know the psychology behind this—why an abused child will run into the arms of their abuser—but it makes me sad.

There is one case I do not talk about anymore, one that I am not able to speak of, not to Adam, not even to Joe. It was a case that I knew would end badly… I felt it in my bones the moment I walked into the home, and I was right.

Madalyn Olmstead did not have an easy entrance into this world, nor did she have a gentle exit. Madalyn was born at Cedar City Hospital six years ago and spent the first ten days of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for respiratory issues. I became involved when Madalyn was one and a home health-care nurse called my supervisor at the Department of Human Services and asked if someone could check in with Madalyn and her mother at their home. I was assigned the case. When pressed for details, the nurse was vague. "Madalyn needs to use a nebulizer for her asthma, but her mother has a hard time remembering what I tell her. I think she might have trouble reading but is a quick learner when someone shows her what to do. She seems great with Madalyn." The nurse was quiet for a moment. "Honestly, it's the husband I'm worried about. It's like when he comes into the room all the air is sucked out. She becomes tense and all her attention goes right to the husband. He acts like a jealous sibling or something. He has no interest in Madalyn but to complain about how much time his wife is spending with her. She seemed scared of him. Can't you just go over there and check? I'd feel so much better."

As a social worker, I was obligated to follow through, though based on what the nurse shared, I didn't think I'd find anything that was actionable, but at least the father would know that someone was paying attention to the way he was interacting with his wife and his daughter. Three years later Madalyn was dead and I knew James Olmstead had killed her and he got away with it.

Most often Madalyn comes to me in the violet-tinged mornings. That middling space between night and day. She has the sweet, unformed features of a toddler and sparkling gray eyes recessed above full, pink cheeks. Surprisingly, considering the way she was found, it wasn't the most gruesome of deaths—very little blood and only a few bruises marred her perfect little body. It was the hidden, internal injuries that killed Madalyn. Still Madalyn's short time on earth began with the violent expulsion from her mother's womb into the cold, unforgiving earthly air and ended in violence, as well. It just couldn't be proved. I knew differently and I think her mother did, too. Though she was too blind, too scared, to say so.

When I wake up in the mornings, as the memory of Madalyn creeps beneath the covers with me and my snoring husband, my children sleeping soundly in the rooms down the hall, over and over I try to parse out just how her father, James Olmstead, got away with murder.

I'd been in and out of the Olmstead home for years because of suspected abuse by the father. Neighbors to the Olmsteads would call the police because of loud fighting coming from the house. Twice Madalyn had to be removed from the home because the father had beaten the mother so badly. Twice, the mother didn't press charges. Twice, Madalyn was returned to the home. There were contusions on Madalyn, but the kind you find on all children: skinned knees, bruised elbows, purple knots on the forehead. All explained away by Madalyn's mother. Such a busy little girl. You have children, right?

She was right, I do have children. Just before Madalyn died, Lucas was four and Leah was seven and they had the exact same kind of bruises. But as social workers, we know. We know which homes hold the addicts, the predators, the abusers. We just can't always prove it.

Two years ago, on a beautiful May afternoon, Madalyn Olmstead tumbled out of the third-story window of her apartment building and fell to the concrete sidewalk below. The only other person in the apartment at the time was her father.

"She was out of my sight for only a second," her father claimed. "She thought she could fly," he cried convincingly to the news cameras. During the autopsy, besides the traumatic head injury, the medical examiner found suspicious bruising on Madalyn but not suspicious enough to call it murder. Because of his neglect, Madalyn's father was arrested for child endangerment that resulted in the death of a child and was facing up to a fifty-year prison sentence.

Even though I was convinced this was no accident, at the time I was satisfied that James Olmstead was being tried for the lesser charge and would have been content just having him put in prison. I prepared to testify against James. Over and over I reviewed the documentation of my visits to the Olm-stead home, practiced describing the injuries I saw on Madalyn's mother, the suspicious bruises I saw on Madalyn. The jury never heard my testimony. It can be very difficult for the prosecution to get a defendant's prior bad acts entered into evidence, and the judge in this case felt that the facts would prejudice the jury too much. Our only hope was that the defense would open the door by providing testimony that it was all a mistake, that James's character was much different than what he was alleged to have done. That he just wasn't capable of hurting his daughter. The defense didn't open that door, didn't bring James's moral fiber into testimony, didn't have his wife or his co-workers at the foundry where he worked, nor the parents of children he coached in Tiny Tot T-Ball, speak on his behalf. Didn't have James testify on his own behalf. As a result, the jurors were not allowed to hear of James's abu-siveness. He was acquitted. Too much reasonable doubt, the jury foreperson explained after the trial was over.

Three months later, James and his wife sued the owner of the apartment building for not insuring that the window screens were safely installed. They won a tidy sum of money and were from then on known as the victims.

I just knew that James had beaten his daughter and then panicked. In my gut I knew he made it look like she had climbed onto the windowsill, fallen through the screen and tumbled three stories to the sidewalk below. Madalyn was a fear-filled little girl. She was afraid of water, was afraid of dogs, was afraid of strangers, and was, most likely, afraid of heights. There was no way that Madalyn Olmstead would climb onto a windowsill and press her little hands against the screen. Never once in all the time I spent with her did she ever tell me she wished she could be a bird, wished she could fly. One thing I knew of for sure was that Madalyn was afraid of her father.

Months after the trial, not Caren, my supervisor, not Joe, not even my husband would listen to me rant and rave about my suspicions anymore. "Didn't the medical examiner say her injuries were consistent with an accidental fall?" Adam asked when I brought up my concerns for about the millionth time. I tried to explain that the medical examiner at the time was overworked and had a reputation of taking the lazy way out in determining his findings. Adam wasn't sympathetic. "Ellen," he said, "you're making yourself sick over this. You need to stop worrying about this kid. No one else seems to be."

Adam's lack of concern irked me a bit, but Caren's and Joe's dismissal truly hurt. In social work and police work, too, we not only deal with facts but gut instinct often prods us into action. I thought they would listen to my worries and would back me up when I suggested another in-depth investigation into Madalyn's death. They were sympathetic, made all the right noises when I made my case to them, but in the end they said they were satisfied with the jury's decision and I needed to drop it.

In the end all that was left was the man who got away with murder, the woman who chose to protect him, and me, the social worker who was powerless to protect a four-year-old little girl named Madalyn Olmstead, who will forever be known as Little Bird, the little girl who thought she could fly.

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Little Mercies 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Zadunajsky More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. My heart felt the emotions of Ellen and Jenny. I didn't want the story to end. Highly recommended.
Clever-Cat More than 1 year ago
Little Mercies is told from two different perspectives, as with all of Gudenkauf's novels. Ellen Moore is a social worker, mom, and busy body--much like the rest of us! She is extremely passionate about her work and about helping children to put them in the safest situations as possible. Ten-year-old Jenny Braird has a dark past filled with abuse. As is often the case, life changes in the blink of an eye for both of them. A distracted Ellen leaves her daughter in the car on a hot summer day. The daughter suffers a heat stroke, and is rushed to the hospital. Ellen is left flustered and confused. How could this happen to her? In the meantime, Jenny has been in the custody of her father. One day, he encourages her to get on the bus ahead of him. In the minutes between her getting on the bus and him following, Jenny's dad is pursued by the police. In the confusion, he hits a police officer and is taken into custody. Jenny continues on the bus, hoping to find her maternal grandmother, since her father is in prison. Paths for the two meet in the form of Ellen's mother, Maudene, who welcomes Jenny into her home, as she sees the signs of abuse. Ellen struggles as she receives court orders to stay away from her hospitalized daughter and threats of having her other two children taken away. This novel is very beautifully written, as is true of the rest of Gudenkauf's works. The characters are very relateable, as we can all understand how confusing these sudden situations can be. In particular, Ellen's story centers around an extremely controversial, yet usually honest, mistake. As with all of her novels, Gudenkauf inserts the reader into the stories; their worries are yours, their problems are yours, and their triumphs are your own as well. Little Lies was the perfect beginning to a wonderfully told story, Little Mercies. The largest difference I saw between this novel and her others was the pace at which I read it. With all three of Gudenkauf's other novels, I could not put them down! Even with Little Lies, I was hooked and read it instantly! Little Mercies took me almost a week to get through, as the pace of it just wasn't as gripping as previous works. The quality of content was still fabulous! Overall review, though? If you are looking for a fabulous summer read, THIS IS IT. Rating: 4/5
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book Heather! :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book will make you look at parental mistakes with new vision. I never thought that I could feel like this. This book is really good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Always a fan of Heather and this book did not disappoint
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was really good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Her books are amazing and this was excellent! can't wait till she publishes another one!
kwestrope More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. It's a chilling story that will stay with you long after you have finished reading it. The drama that unfolds is at once both realistic and inconceivable. It takes you on an emotional roller coaster right along with the characters.  While you think you know how it's going to turn out, there are still surprises along the way. These characters are very realistically portrayed - they are your neighbors, your friends, your family. You are very quickly pulled in to their lives and caught up in their stories. This is the second book I've read by this author, and I look forward to reading more of her work. If you like true to life, emotional family drama, I definitely recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read. I love how she merges two situations happening to two different people at the end. Her books always leave you wanting to no more!
Francesca33 More than 1 year ago
This was recommended by a coworker, and I loved it. Could not put it down, it had me hooked. I just had to know what was going to happen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Maudene and the other characters were pretty interesting too. Good book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a fast read. As a society we are always finding fault with others but not ourselves. Little Mercies is an interesting perspective regarding self discovery and introspection.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have not been disappointed in any of Heather's writings. Keep em coming. :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to put down!   Told from two different characters perspectives, a social worker and a ten year old girl.  Heartfelt story.  I read all of Heather Gudenkauf's books and loved them all.
quaintinns More than 1 year ago
A special thank you to Harlequin MIRA and NetGalley, for an ARC of this remarkable book, in exchange for an honest review. Heather Gudenkauf's LITTLE MERCIES is Totally Amazing! A book you will want to devour; however, you find yourself savoring every minute of this intense, and heartfelt story! A social worker finds herself living her own nightmare. LITTLE MERCIES is a powerful "must read," 5-Star Winner! Every woman, mother, and daughter will relate to this gripping and emotionally charged novel. Set in Iowa, Ellen and Adam are happily married, with three small children living busy harried lives. Ellen is a loving mother and conscientious in her professional life as a social worker, balancing her life between personal and business, and all the demands which go along with this role. Being a social worker is extremely stressful and one which tragedy occurs daily-she sees firsthand the delicate relationships between children and parents and the devastating effects of neglect. However, in a blink of an eye, a busy morning—a distraction, and an accident occurs, which will forever change the lives of this family. In a different town, Jenny, a ten-year old from Nebraska finds herself alone on a bus, after her alcoholic dad is taken away. She has not experienced an easy life, with one obstacle after another— poverty, abuse, struggles with school, a runaway mother and an unpredictable father. In a town alone, far away from her father, she finds herself alone at a diner, when one special lady shows her kindness, by taking her into her heart and family. Told in alternating perspectives between Ellen and Jenny—offering readers an insight into difficult situations, through the eyes of a guilt-ridden mother and an innocent but determined child. Full of suspense, a chilling tale, so realistic--with twists and turns you will not see coming—these two stories collide for the most powerful and gripping story. There are so many lives connected from the mothers which were former clients of Ellen (Jade), Ellen’s mother, Maudene, (which I loved), and Jenny (you want to cry for her), and Joe (the cop friend). Your heart goes out to Ellen and this family, keeping you turning pages, into the night, to learn the fate of this two families. Social workers and those in a capacity of who work tirelessly to protect children and help families, are often disregarded. Often, we forget that those who spend their lives serving and helping others can also make mistakes, at times with shattering results. This was my first book by Heather Gudenkauf, and was so impressed. She has made it to my favorite author list, and have become an instant fan! I immediately, purchased LITTLE LIES, the e-short story novel, a prequel to LITTLE MERCIES and quickly adding her earlier books to my reading list. A beautifully written novel, with lovable characters you will remember long after the book ends. Fans of Diane Chamberlain and Jodi Picoult, will enjoy LITTLE MERCIES and Heather’s talented writing style. LITTLE MERCIES, offers a great takeaway-grab life; appreciating the little things (little mercies) in life which are precious, as they could be threatened at any moment. This story makes you take notice of little ways in which you can make a difference in the lives of others, by offering your time, kindness, and support in a time of need. Let’s hope for a sequel, as these characters are too good to end!
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
A Haunting Portrayal of Parenthood I received this book free from Harlequin. Move over, Jodi Picoult, a new author that tackles difficult social subjects is in town. Once again, Heather Gudenkauf has written a book that is impossible to put down and addresses some of the most gut-wrenching scenarios a parent can face. I shouldn’t be too surprised because I loved her previous books that also tackled difficult subjects, especially The Weight of Silence, but Little Mercies may be her best book yet. Little Mercies is a story about parents, families, and the tenuous ties between them. The dual-narrative story follows Ellen, a social worker, and Jenny, a precocious ten year old, both of whom are battling their inner demons and grappling with the hand they’ve been dealt in life. Although Ellen has saved countless families and children in her time as a social worker, a momentary lapse in judgment will put her life, career, and parental responsibilities at risk. Meanwhile, Jenny is growing up with a loving, but irresponsible, father, and is searching for answers about herself. Although their stories are distinctly different, it is their interconnectedness that give the book an unexpected depth and value to the story. What I loved about this book is that the characters were so real. Everyone, whether they are a parent or not, has had a lapse in judgment that resulted in consequences that spiraled out of control. This is especially true in today’s world of smartphones, Vines, and SnapChats. In Little Mercies, Gudenkauf translates the feelings from those gut-wrenching experiences to the pages in a way that will evoke an actual, physical reaction from the reader. In the few hours it took me to read Little Mercies from cover to cover, I was anxious for Ellen, fearful for her children, and concerned for Jenny. I also became angry at injustices, saddened by tragedies, and comforted by certain relationships. In short, this book took me on an emotional roller coaster, and while it wasn’t all roses and sunshine, I loved every minute of it. If you’re looking for a compelling story that you can read in a relatively short amount of time, I highly recommend Little Mercies. Gudenkauf manages to approach an emotional and difficult topic with a sensitivity and care that places her at the top of her game and you would be remiss to skip this one. Allison @ The Book Wheel
KelliN More than 1 year ago
Ever since I became a mother, I love reading contemporary novels about motherhood and its many challenges. Being a parent is like no other experience I've ever had, and small moments of connection, whether they are found with friends or in books, really make a difference in how I view the challenges of parenthood. Little Mercies is by far the best book about parenting and life with small children that I've ever read. It was gripping, emotional, and intense. Gudenkauf uses a dual narrative, alternating between Ellen and Jenny's stories each chapter. The difference was, in this novel, Ellen's story is told in the first person, and Jenny's is told in the third person. At first glance, you'd think that this type of narration wouldn't flow well, but it worked perfectly for this story. It allowed Little Mercies to really feel like Ellen's book, which it was. When I read the summary for Little Mercies, I thought that there was no realistic or believable way that Ellen and Jenny's lives could converge. Boy, was I wrong! Gudenkauf wove their stories together in the most subtle and interesting of ways. It was unique to see how Jenny changes Ellen's perspective on life, and how Ellen's influence changes Jenny's world for the better. The crux of Little Mercies is a very relevant topic in today's world. Ellen makes a terrible mistake, one that any parent could make, no matter who they are, and its effects are far-reaching and completely life-changing. I loved the way Gudenkauf resolved the conflict: it was realistic yet not too perfect. Life is messy and imperfect and Little Mercies reflected that truth perfectly. An important fact to note is that while Little Mercies is intended for adults, it was a pretty clean read, with references to sex but nothing more. Little Mercies was an outstanding book. I'd recommend it to fans of contemporary fiction, women's fiction, and even literary fiction.
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Ellen Moore is a mother of three and has to deal with children from the hardest situations. But when Ellen is in a rush to help some children, she accidentally leaves her infant daughter in the hot car. Avery suffers from severe heat stroke and it looks like Ellen may loose custody of her other children too. Ellen is frustrated to be in the same place that many parents are in when she has to take their kids away. Ten year old Jenny has been living with her father after her mother left them. But her father can barely take care of himself let alone a child. Jenny has been a victim of neglect, abuse, a runaway mother, and an alcoholic father. When she goes to get on the bus with her father to visit her unknown grandmother, she is thrown into another unknown area when her father is arrested and she continues on the bus alone. The best person in this story is Maudene. She is Ellen’s mother and the strength Ellen needs to get through the fight for her kids. She is also the one that takes Jenny in and tried to give her a normal life. Maudene is a great character and a wonderful role model. I really liked this story. It gives you more to think about when it comes to social workers and some of the situations that parents find themselves in. It is also heart breaking following Jenny and what she has gone through with her short life. This is a great story with highs and lows. I think most people will like this book. I will be checking out other books by Heather Gudenkauf.