Thursday, November 16, 2023

Small Mercies, by Dennis Lehane

 I don’t often review individual books here. Much of that has to do with the number of books I read each year, which would turn the blog into a review site and that’s not why I’m here. Every so often a book compels me to draw attention to it alone. Dennis Lehane’s latest, Small Mercies, is such a book.


Small Mercies takes place during the lead up to the Boston busing riots in 1974. I’ll not say much about what happens; that’s for you to do if you choose to read the book. Suffice to say the core story concerns the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Jules Fennessy on the eve of the first busing protests, and her mother’s (Mary Pat) attempts to find her.


Small Mercies uses the busing protests much the same as Lehane used the Boston police strike for the backdrop of his 2008 novel The Given Day, though the scope here is much smaller. This is an examination of race relations, neighborhoods, and families, using South Boston as the stage.


The core takeaway is not to judge anyone unless evaluating them in their totality. Mary Pat Fennessy is blind to her own racism, which makes it even worse and harder to work around. She is also a devoted mother, in her way, and that way is how parents raised kids in South Boston, which is recommended in no book ever. Small Mercies focuses on her changes as she learns who her real friends are and how neighborhood dynamics can fracture not only friendships but family relationships.


The culture in which Mary Pat grew up is fiercely loyal and devoted to the neighborhood. People shovel each other’s walks and spread rock salt around as needed regardless of whose piece of sidewalk it will keep from freezing. Old women are helped across streets and into their walk-up apartments with their groceries. This is the standard and everyone accepts it.


In this story, the busing edict is an infringement on their neighborhood’s rights. To them it’s less about desegregation than resentment over forcing them to send their kids somewhere they do not want them to go. Fears for the children’s safety are cited - and may be legitimate - though it is clear Black families are entitled to the same concerns. More than that, it’s a matter of outsiders telling them how they have to live. The wounds fester because “The people who make the rules don’t have to live by them.” True, the racial prejudice is severe, but class hatred is also a key element. Rightly or wrongly, these people feel pressed between two forces, neither of which has their interests at heart.


As close as the people are, the book makes clear the neighborhood is always paramount; the nail that sticks up will be hammered down with a vengeance. Mary Pat runs into this as she asks uncomfortable questions about her daughter’s disappearance, and through that experience comes to see a little of the other side in this dispute. Both her actions are disloyalties akin to neighborhood treason.


No one combines complex characters, vivid dialog, the right amount of description, and a little smart-assery as well as Lehane. It was he who said crime fiction is the social novel of our time, and in Small Mercies he sets a new standard. If I am still around in a hundred years and see Dennis Lehane is considered at least the equal of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, the only thing that would surprise me is that I’m still around in a hundred years.



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