South Boston prepares for school busing in summer 1974, the setting for Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane. The neighborhood is poor, tight and corrupt, the racism constant and overt. Protagonist Mary Pat, middle-aged and tough, finds money for cigarettes and beer, but struggles to pay the utility bills. Her first husband died and the second one left home after finding work at Harvard University’s mailroom. With access to one of the finest libraries in the world, he devours books and develops new interests. He parts by noting, “Your hate embarrasses me.”
Mary Pat gets it, describing herself as “happiest when she’s opposed, most ecstatic when she’s been wronged. But she also insists the neighborhood’s anger about busing is not simply about race. “She’d be just as angry if they told her she has to send her kid across the city to Revere or the North End or someplace mostly … Just another case of the rich … in their suburban castles (in their all-white towns) telling the poor people stuck in the city how things are going to be.” At times, she even surprises herself by feeling some kinship with Boston’s black residents. “As a project rat herself, Mary Pat knows all too well what happens when the suspicion that you aren’t good enough gets desperately rebuilt into the conviction that the rest of the world is wrong about you. And if they’re wrong about you, then they’re probably wrong about everything else.” She rails about inequality. “They’re poor because there’s limited amount of good luck in this world, and they’ve never been given any.... There are way more people in the world than there is luck, so you’re either in the right place at the right time at the very second luck shows up, for once and nevermore. Or you aren’t.”
Mary Pat is not lucky. She has already lost a son to a drug overdose and frets about a pretty, gentle daughter, hoping that Jules will find a somewhat better life, if similar to Mary Pat's.
The book begins with Mary Pat grilling the quiet teenager after the two enjoy a rare good moment shopping for school supplies. Both are restless, worried about the changes busing will bring. “Change, for those who don’t have a say in it, feels like a pretty word for death,” Mary Pat muses. “Death to what you want, death to whatever plans you’d been making, death to the life you’ve always known.” Jules wonders about not feeling the way others around her do: “You just, you know, you ever have the feeling that things are supposed to be one way but they’re not? And you don’t know why because you’ve never known like anything but what you see?”
The conversation is their last. The daughter does not come home that night and Mary Pat storms the neighborhood with questions, impatient with platitudes offered by family and friends: “G’bless… It is what it is and Whatta ya gonna do. Phrases that provide comfort by removing the speaker’s power. Phrases that say it’s all up to someone else, you’re blameless. Blameless, sure, but powerless, too.” She reflects on her own role in her daughter’s choices. While questioning a niece, Mary Pat notices the girl is no longer aware and joyful and confident. “What takes that from them? Mary Pat wonders. Is it us?”
Mary Pat soon discovers that she did not know her daughter or the neighborhood all that well. Jules was last seen with a group of friends on a train platform where a young black man is found dead on the tracks. Mary Pat detests Jules’ boyfriend who “thinks he’s kind of smart, and the ones who are like that grow mean when the world laughs at them.” But Jules' predicament is far worse, as the young man merely served as cover for a secret relationship with a ruthless neighborhood power-broker.
Neighbors and friends resist Mary Pat's questions. All her life, she relied on the Southie code, neighbors watching out for one another. But she realizes the code really meant protection for the neighborhood hierarchy of corruption and the ease of casting blame on outsiders. Angry, with no one to trust, Mary Pat confronts her own racism, the insistence that “We’re not the same. We’re just not.” Suddenly, the divisive hatred seems so pointless. “She sits there, overcome suddenly with a fresh horror of the self. Her daughter is dead. Auggie Williamson is dead, the lives of several teenagers on the platform that night are ruined, and her mind grasps with grubby desperation for ways to feel superior to them.”
She shares her anguish and doubt with police investigator Michael “Bobby” Coyne, a recovering alcoholic. “When you’re a kid and they start in with all the lies, they never tell you they’re lies. They just tell you this is what it is. Whether they’re talking about Santa Claus or God or marriage or what you can or can’t make of yourself…. you can’t trust them…. And they tell you that’s the Way.” And a child thinks, “I want to be part of the Way. I sure don’t want to be outside the Way. I gotta live with these people my whole life.” Home is warm and the outside world is cold. “And then you dig in because now you got kids and you want them to feel warm.” Mary Pat continues, “And you spread the same lies to them, mainline them into their blood. Until they become the kinda people who can chase some poor boy into a train station and bash his head in with a rock.”
Mary Pat blames herself, suggesting the children recognize the lies at a young age. "But you keep repeating the lies until you wear them down. That’s the worst of it – you wear them down until you scoop all the good out of their hearts and replace it with poison.” At the book's end, Coyne points to a hard reality – parents cannot protect their children. All they can do is consistently model and pass along values and methods for making decisions while keeping baser emotions in check and hateful people at a distance. “I can do what I can, teach you as much as I know. But if I’m not there when the world comes to take its bite – and even if I am – there’s no guarantee I can stop it. I can love you. I can support you, but I can’t keep you safe.”
Small Mercies is a masterpiece, terse and compelling, from an author driven to expose racism's sources and motivations much as Mary Pat longs to understand the reasons behind the deaths of her two children.