While David Adams Richards has long been admired, having won the Governor General’s Award in both fiction and non-fiction, he has remained something of a cult figure in Canadian writing – beloved by aficionados, but hardly a household name. With Mercy Among the Children, however, Richards should take his place among the very finest and most beloved of Canadian writers.
Set in the backwaters of the Miramichi, Mercy Among the Children is an almost mythic story of poverty and survival, and of how the sins (actual or perceived) of the father are visited upon the son. The father is Sydney Henderson, who as a young man lifts himself from poverty and alcoholism through work and reading, and who makes a pact with God to harm no man. This pact results in the harrowing persecution of Sydney and his family by the townspeople, as recounted by Lyle, his eldest son, around whom much of the novel revolves. It is also the story of the town itself and of its people, a rich tableau of fully realized characters, any one of them worth a novel in themselves.
Richards’ narrative voice is simply astounding. Rich in dialect and colloquialism, it vividly establishes both character and locale. Simultaneously, however, the prose rings with an almost scriptural force, a plainspoken, peaceful simplicity that belies a deep, moral power juxtaposed against petty machinations and small concerns. Both earthily human and deeply holy, Mercy Among the Children is a truly profound and unsettling novel. To read it is to confront the best and the worst of humanity, within the novel and within ourselves.
It is a special and all too rare experience to be utterly surprised by greatness. Most great books are preceded by their own reputations, each reader’s experience in some way already shaped before the cover is even opened. Let the reputation-building begin: Mercy Among the Children is truly a great book, a grand achievement, a masterpiece.