Dennis Lehane is a master story teller. He has a crisply elegant way with words and his characters leap off the pages in the wholeness of their humanity.
Small Mercies takes place in Boston during the summer of 1974, a time when politicians have decided to take school segregation seriously by legislating the transfer of black and white students to schools out of their segregated communities. When reading the blurb for this book, I was thinking that this was neo-historical fiction but as the story unravels, I came to realize that it continues to be part of our reality in 2023. The racism now may not be as evident but we all know that it is still part of our lived experience. The backlash from both communities but especially the ‘Southies’ is harsh and unrelenting.
The story centres around Mary Pat Fennessey, a life-long resident of the housing project of South Boston, Southie, and a victim of her racist upbringing. Her 17-year-old daughter fails to return home one night and Mary Pat, with a mother’s intuition guiding her way, sets out to find her. On that same evening, a 20-year-old black man is found dead on the tracks of the subway, presumably struck by the train. As Mary Pat begins her tireless search for her missing daughter, she bumps up against the Irish Mob, the illegitimate rulers of the neighbourhood and the powerful hold they have on the government, police and citizens. The death and disappearance of two young people becomes intermingled and Mary Pat, with her own sense of justice and fair play, and little regard for her personal safety, seeks to find the truth.
This is not a thematically easy read as the hatred and racial ignorance screams off the page but it is a great read and an important reminder of how much we have yet to accomplish.