Mercy lives in modern-day Pietermaritzburg, South Africa with her eccentric foster auntstwo elderly sisters so poor, they can only afford one lightbulb. A nasty housing developer is eying their house. And that same house suddenly starts falling apartjust as Aunt Flora starts falling apart. She’s forgetting words, names, and even how to behave in public. Mercy tries to keep her head down at school so nobody notices her. But when a classmate frames her for stealing the school’s raffle money, Mercy's teachers decide to take a closer look at her home life.
Along comes Mr. Singh, who rents the back cottage of the house on Hodson Road. When he takes Mercy to visit a statue in the middle of the city, she learns that the shy, nervous “Mohandas” he tells stories about is actually Gandhi, who spent a cold and lonely night in the waiting room of the Pietermaritzburg train station over a hundred years ago. It marked the beginning of his life’s quest for truth…and the visit to his statue marks Mercy’s realization that she needsjust like Gandhito stand up for herself.
Mercy needs a miracle. But to summon that miracle, she has to find her voice and tell the truthand that truth is neither pure nor simple.
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Mercy stood in front of the principal’s desk, with the excuse note in her hand. Mrs. Griesel laid down her pen and looked at her over the top of her spectacles.
“Yes, Mercy?” she said, taking the note and opening it. “It says here that you are to be excused from the class assembly rehearsals because you have …” She paused and looked at Mercy as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was reading. “The collywobbles?”
“Are the collywobbles the same or different from the dickey tummy you had last week?” Mrs. Griesel heaved herself out of her swivel chair and clip clopped over to a filing cabinet from which she pulled a file.
“I must have about twelve excuse notes here,” she said. “This one was rather good. It says that you are to be excused from inter-house cross-country because you have a bone in your leg.” She raised one eyebrow. “Who wrote this note, Mercy?”
“My foster mother Aunt Mary.”
“Did she also write the one about you having a bone in your leg?”
“No, that was my other foster mother, Aunt Flora.”
“Yes, I remember now. They’re sisters.”
Mrs. Griesel tapped her top lip with her index finger. “And, just remind me, how long have you been living with these Aunts?”
“Since I was five.”
“And they are … how old would you say?”
Mercy didn’t know. When she’d asked Aunt Mary a few years ago, Aunt Mary said she was as old as her tongue and a little bit older than her teeth. They were old—but it was hard to say just how old. Their faces were lined and freckled and their hair was silvery white: Aunt Mary cut hers straight with nail scissors but Aunt Flora’s hair stood up like dandelion fluff. Aunt Mary always carried a handkerchief and a bunch of keys in the pocket of her homemade dress. Aunt Flora liked comfy tracksuit pants that she pulled up high. How old is that exactly?
“I don’t know, Mrs. Griesel.”
“So why has Mrs. Pruitt sent you to me today? Tell me more about this class assembly and why you need to be excused from it.”
It was hard for Mercy to explain why the instruction to do a folk dance from her own culture proved so difficult to follow. When she asked the Aunts for help, they didn’t make it any easier.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” Aunt Mary said, when Mercy asked. “Can we pretend you are Polish and teach you the polka?”
Aunt Mary had ideas about education and they didn’t include cultural folk dancing or anything “new-fangled” as she called it. She didn’t even read Mercy’s school reports. She thought education should include memorizing the Latin names of plants and a lot of great poetry. Oh young Lochinvar has come out of the West, through all the wide border his steed was the best …
But Aunt Flora was more nervous: she liked Mercy to get the right answer and not get into trouble.
“What should we do, Mary?” Aunt Flora said. “Shall we teach her the quick step?” But they decided in the end to teach her Morris dancing.
So Mercy watched while Aunt Flora played a plinky-plonky tune on the piano and Aunt Mary skipped about the sitting room waving her handkerchief in time to the music. Aunt Mary was not a person who skipped lightly and Mercy had been a bit disturbed by the sight—and then relieved when Aunt Mary had come to a breathless halt saying, “Oh, this is ridiculous. We’ll have to think of something else.”
After an awkward silence, Aunt Flora asked, “Well, what will the other children be doing?”
“Indian dancing? Maybe Zulu dancing,” Mercy offered. “Mrs. Pruitt said that we all have a culture and we must celebrate it.”
“Ridiculous,” said Aunt Mary. “Almost no-one has a single culture. If I were in your class at school, Mercy, which culture would I celebrate? White South African, whatever that is? Viking? English? West Indian?”
“West Indian?” Mercy was confused.
“Yes. After our great grandmother died, my great grandfather married a West Indian woman and its one of the big regrets of my life that I’ve never gone to Barbados to meet that side of my family.”
“Mrs. Pruitt wants me to do something by these people called the Cape Malay Minstrels,” said Mercy. “Maybe it’s because I’m … you know … colored.”
“Just because your mother’s people came from Cape Town originally is no reason, dear child, to go capering about in shiny satin twanging a small guitar. Honestly! If you had grown up on the Cape Flats, it would be a festival that you could take completely to heart, but you’ve never even been to Cape Town!”
Mercy was relieved. She’d seen the Kaapse Klopse festivities on TV; seen the bright costumes, the brass bands and the colorful umbrellas, but the whole event was completely alien to her; it was as strange as a Chinese New Year street party with paper dragons.
“So,” said Aunt Mary, “If we are to be accurate, I think what we are looking for here is a dance that has some Cape Malay, some Khoisan, a bit of Dutch Settler, some English ...”
“I think we’ll just write a little excuse note, shall we?” Aunt Flora said, always anxious to get Aunt Mary off her high horse. “Now where did I put those …” And she wandered off through the kitchen and out into the back garden, patting her pockets and the top of her head, looking for her spectacles.
So it was Aunt Mary who found a pen and wrote the note about the collywobbles—the same note that Mrs. Griesel was now adding to Mercy’s folder as she waited for an explanation.
Mercy took a deep breath. “Our class in is charge of assembly on Friday and Mrs. Pruitt wants us to do folk dancing from our own culture.”
“What a good idea!” said Mrs. Griesel, beaming. “I don’t understand why your aunts would want you to miss out on this very worthwhile cultural activity. It sounds like such fun. Don’t you agree, Mercy?”
Mrs. Griesel made her hands into a church steeple to support her chin and looked at Mercy with narrowed eyes.
“I have to confess, you’re a bit of a mystery, Mercy Adams,” she said, looking back down at the folder. “Your marks are excellent but you won’t join in. You won’t do sport at all. Or orals. Or plays. You want to be excused from everything.” Mrs. Griesel sighed. “And the peculiar thing is that these foster mothers of yours seem to collude in this non-participation. They seem to encourage it.”
She changed her tone of voice and tilted her head at a caring angle. “Mercy, is everything all right at home?”
“Yes. It’s all fine,” said Mercy quickly. “Everything’s fine.”
Mrs. Griesel looked back down at the open folder, flapped some pages backwards and forwards, and asked a bit too casually, “When did the social worker last check on you?”
Mercy dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand.
“I think I need to contact Child Welfare to review your case.” Mrs. Griesel made a note in her diary. “I’m sure it’s time they extended the order.” She paused and then she said under her breath: “It may be time to reconsider …”
“It’s OK, Mrs. Griesel, ma’am,” Mercy said as brightly as she could. “I’ll do the dancing.”
“That’s the spirit, Mercy,” said Mrs. Griesel, leaning back in her chair. “A little dancing will do you so much good.” She wrinkled her nose. “You might even enjoy it.”
Mercy was prepared to do almost anything, even skip around waving a white hanky in the air, if it would keep the social worker away from the house.
What People are Saying About This
"Tender, exhilarating, and often hilarious, Small Mercies perfectly weaves the difficult and the wonderful truths of being alive. You will root for Mercy from the very first page, and she will be in your heart long after you've read this vivid, beautifully written novel." Sara Cassidy, author of A Boy Named Queen and Nevers