#SheReviews: Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

October 18, 2023

#SheReviews by Anne Gibson

America, in it’s best version of itself, is enshrined with noble and forward-thinking tenets and ideologies. ‘The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ is often a hopeful and hope-filled country where anything is possible (in theory at least), and a shining light is given for the world to look on with awe and admiration. In short, the Great American Dream has been, throughout the history of the United States, alive and attainable. Just not for all it’s citizens, as we now know.

There is undeniably, amidst the glittering and astonishing beauty of America, a dark underbelly of racism, class discrimination and violent crime.

Such paradoxical truths are held under a focused and sobering microscope in the phenomenal American author, Dennis Lehane’s, latest thriller, Small Mercies.

The formidable twist in this chilling and cautionary tale is that events take place in the summer of 1974 in the strictly working-class enclaves of the American city of Boston, particularly South Boston (aka ‘Southie’). Southie is where the working-class Irish Americans have clustered together in Boston at this time. Those who reside in Southie live by an unspoken code, the predominant ‘rule’ being not to betray (or ‘snitch’ on) eachother, in any way, under any circumstances.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, it is built on the real landmark case of Morgan vs Hennigan in Boston in 1974, whereby public schools in Boston were ordered to be desegregated. As Lehane informs us of the clinical and unpopular (at the time) procedure, “The school in the neighborhood with the largest African American population was Roxbury High School. The school in the neighborhood with the largest white population was South Boston High School. It was decided that these two schools would switch a significant portion of their student bodies”.

Our main protagonist, down-on-her-luck and poverty-stricken, forty-two year old single mother, Mary Pat Fennessy, lives in a run-down apartment in the precinct of Commonwealth in Southie, a housing project. A chain smoker, Mary Pat is a hospital aide, working doggedly and patiently in an aged care facility, Meadow Lane Manor. She additionally gets shifts at a shoe warehouse. Demoralisingly for Mary Pat, her work hasn’t prevented her from getting the gas turned off in her apartment, due to an unpaid bill. Mary Pat’s daughter, seventeen year old Jules (who goes to South Boston High) is stubborn, fiery and demonstrably independent.

When Jules fails to come home one ardently eventful Saturday night, Mary Pat tries to be positive, despite rising fear and panic. As time marches on, dread and terror engulf Mary Pat. Upon Mary Pat’s inquiries, it seems that Jules was at Columbia Park and Carson Beach on her night out, and with a ‘gang’ of school buddies, including Ronald Collins (who is Jules’ boyfriend, or is he?), Brenda Morello, George Dunbar and Peg McAuliffe.

On the night Jules went missing, a twenty year old African American man, Augustus Williamson, was discovered dead at Columbia Train Station. Augustus was the son of Mary Pat’s fellow worker in aged care, ‘Dreamy’.

Mary Pat’s ugly racist views are revealed to us, as she reflects to herself, “She (Mary Pat) stays on her side of town, her side of the ….line, and is it too much to ask that they (African Americans) do the same?……Because the truth is they don’t understand one another…..”.

A dark and menacing undercurrent pervades all the residents of Southie’s lives, and that is the Irish criminal group (‘mob’) headed by the icy Marty Butler and his equally cold and unfeeling henchmen, including Brian Shea, Frankie Toomey and George Dunbar.

Will Mary Pat ever find Jules? Has she taken off to Florida, as has been suggested to Mary Pat?

How is Augustus Williamson’s death linked to the abrupt disappearance of Jules?

Does the desegregation of schools go off smoothly, or are the white opponents victorious in their outspoken objections and rallies?

Can Detectives Pritchard and Coyne from homicide division help Mary Pat to find Jules?

How does the war in Vietnam come into the plot?

Dennis has written a crime thriller brimming with intelligence, wisdom and keen powers of observation of the human psyche. Themes of race and class in America in 1974 are held up to a light, and a grave darkness encompasses them. There are also exemplifiers of the Great American Dream being unavailable for many. In this historically reverberating novel, they include Mary Pat (who works so hard, yet lives in poverty) and Augustine Williamson and his family, who because of their skin colour are kept at a distance from and viewed warily by white citizens.

Bravo Dennis! You have written a searingly evocative thriller, that had me turning the pages faster and faster as I progressed in my reading of this literary giant of a book.

My thanks go to former US President, Barack Obama, for putting out his 2023 Summer Reading List, involving books he has enjoyed reading over the last year. Small Mercies was on the list, and so I was introduced to another stellar author and book.

I loved this book (it has Netflix series written all over it), and can’t wait to read what Dennis writes next.

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