Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Little Mercies

Heather Gudenkauf’s latest, Little Mercies, seems ripped straight from our newspaper headlines as it focuses on the tragic tale of a mother accidentally leaving her 11-month old daughter alone in a hot car on a stifling summer day and the heartbreaking consequences of that event on her small family. Social worker Ellen Moore has seen it all when it comes to the damage parents can inflict on their children; the atrocities - broken bones, skull fractures, sexual abuse, cigarette burns and hot water burns, she’s seen them all firsthand. Despite the long hours, sacrifices and stress, Ellen loves her job and finds refuge from its horrors within her own happy marriage and family, especially her beloved children Leah, Lucas and Avery. Yet one hectic and frantic summer morning will make her one of “those parents” in the eyes of the law and society.

It’s been them against the world for 10-year old Jenny Briard and her dad since her mom left them. Jenny loves her father despite his drinking and his inability to hold down a job, and when he says it’s time to start over and move again, she bravely dreams of a better tomorrow, but then the two get separated and Jenny is left all alone with only the few dollars in her backpack and her own street savvy. Jenny knows firsthand the evil that people are capable of, but thankfully a chance encounter brings her not only a newfound sense of family and hope, but a chance at a brighter tomorrow.

Despite being a part of the system, Ellen is unprepared for the damage her carelessness has wrought. Facing the possibility of losing not only her job but more importantly her family, Ellen struggles to face a protective order that separates her from her baby daughter when she needs her most, a potential grand jury, and the harrowing ordeal of being arrested like a common criminal, but none of those tribulations can compare to the sheer agony of knowing she’s responsible for everything Avery is going through as she fights for her life. As Ellen and Jenny fight for their respective futures, the two will cross paths and touch each other’s lives in immeasurable ways.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed Gudenkauf’s latest novel, but I will say that unlike her past suspenseful thrillers, this story’s tension and drama comes not from any mystery but from the novel’s relevant cautionary tale. Ellen’s tale offers a simple reminder to stop, listen, and be present in every moment of our life; all too often we are rushing from one moment to the next and sometimes (if we’re lucky) the things we overlook are minor, but sometimes they can have tragic consequences.

The story alternates narrators between Ellen and Jenny, and each offers a compelling dialogue on fear and hope. Jenny’s innocent ruminations on her life, including hunger, deprivation and abuse, are heartbreaking; all the more so because of her resignation at the state of affairs. While I liked Jenny, I felt like her story was a bit of a distraction from the main narrative and didn’t add much to the story as a whole. As for Ellen, I’m not a mother though I love my knuckleheads as if they were my own, but I readily empathized with her anguish.

Gudenkauf did a wonderful job in portraying Ellen’s own self-imposed punishment and the weight of her guilt; effectively conveying the fact that we as readers could never judge her as harshly as she judged herself for her carelessness with something so precious. The fact that Ellen never sees herself as the victim in the set of events that follow Avery’s rescue (no matter the number of looks, questions, harassment by the press, or the arrest), and that she never forgets that her pain and that of her family is of her own making (albeit accidentally), tempers our own instinct to judge her harshly.

Gudenkauf draws the book’s title from the insightful reminder that “we all have those times when we turn our backs, close our eyes, become unguarded” but when we do it’s how we and others respond in those moments that makes the difference. For in those moments of human weakness and sorrow, we “have to look for the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that comes from the terrible;” the blessings that make our burdens and crosses bearable – our family and friends – and the compassion and forgiveness that can serve as a balm to our or someone else’s pain.

Little Mercies is a wonderfully moving and insightful story that reminds me why I loyally read all of Gudenkauf’s novels. Chillingly real and beautifully compassionate, Little Mercies is a story of family, love and forgiveness.