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SMALL MERCIES
by Dennis Lehane
HarperCollins, April 2023
320 pages
$28.99
ISBN: 0062129481


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In novels such as MYSTIC RIVER that have become modern classics, Dennis Lehane has documented the trauma that organized crime and domestic terrorism have inflicted upon generations of twentieth-century Bostonians. His most powerful novel yet, SMALL MERCIES, continues that tradition by exploring white resistance to school desegregation by busing in 1974 "Southie," the terrain of Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang.

SMALL MERCIES is epic but also laser-focused. It is told from the viewpoint of a Bostonian Irish Everywoman, Mary Pat Fennessy. The first words of the book are "the power goes out," and that is an accurate description of Mary Pat's psychic state. Working two jobs, at an assisted living facility and a warehouse, she's burnt out. She feels powerless. Her one lifeline is her daughter, Jules, who hangs out with a bad crowd and curses at her mother. Despite all this, Mary Pat tries to be nice to people--especially people who are known to make trouble for people who don't accommodate them. This category includes Brian Shea, an enforcer from the "Butler crew," who sound very much like the historical Winter Hill gang. Shea comes round to ensure Mary Pat's participation in a protest of school desegregation by "concerned parents" eager to "end judicial dictatorship." She agrees. Shea has convinced her that unlike his gang's other causes, such as the "the IRA" or "starving children in Wherever the Fuck," "the anti-busing cause" is "totally legit," so it "seems like THE Cause." Is Shea not right that the judges who mandated the busing would never submit to it themselves, as they send their children to expensive private schools? Finally, Mary Pat agrees to protest because, ironically, it's the path of least resistance.

Then Jules disappears on a night out with her friends, and when Brian's boss, Marty Butler, tries to downplay Mary Pat's fears, she knows something's up. Meanwhile, at work at the assisted living facility, Mary Pat encounters more trouble. She likes her coworker, a Black woman whom the white woman call Dreamy, which is not her name. Dreamy has always been nice to Mary Pat. On the morning Jules doesn't come home, Dreamy's son is found dead in a subway station. Was his death an accident, or something else? And are the two women's children's disappearances connected? If the Butler crew think they can trick or scare Mary Pat into doing nothing, they're wrong.

SMALL MERCIES works because Lehane refuses to make Mary Pat into any kind of hero. She never tries to do the right thing for its own sake nor in order to end up on the right side of history. She's lost one child to the Vietnam War. She doesn't want to lose her other one. Vehemence isn't courage, and Mary Pat remains plausible because Lehane keeps alerting the reader that in her community, courage is in short supply.

Some of SMALL MERCIES' power comes from the sense of history senselessly repeating itself, in the details and the big picture. Some readers may guess a major point of the suspense plot because it reflects an infamous Winter Hill gang crime, but the revelation of this point amplifies the novel's climate of dread and will make you keep reading. Also, parallels with contemporary American white supremacism, law enforcement corruption, and parental crusades against public policy are evident but never belabored. SMALL MERCIES is an engrossing book that for ethical reasons, ought to be widely read.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, April 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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