Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bookish Thoughts: Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf

When people find out what I do for a living their first question is always about the most horrendous case of child abuse I've encountered. ~ Opening Sentence of Little Mercies.


Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf
Harlequin (MIRA), 2014
Fiction; 320 pgs

From the Publisher:
Veteran social worker Ellen Moore has seen the worst side of humanity;the vilest acts one person can commit against another. She is a fiercely dedicated children's advocate and a devoted mother and wife. But one blistering summer day, a simple moment of distraction will have repercussions that Ellen could never have imagined, threatening to shatter everything she holds dear, and trapping her between the gears of the system she works for.
Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has been living with her well-meaning but irresponsible father since her mother left them, sleeping on friends' couches and moving in and out of cheap motels. When Jenny suddenly finds herself on her own, she is forced to survive with nothing but a few dollars and her street smarts. The last thing she wants is a social worker, but when Ellen's and Jenny's lives collide, little do they know just how much they can help one another.
A powerful and emotionally charged tale about motherhood and justice, Little Mercies is a searing portrait of the tenuous grasp we have on the things we love the most, and of the ties that unexpectedly bring us together.
I wonder if Ellen Moore was reluctant to tell people what she did for a living too.  I imagine so, given the reaction she got when she did.  The first chapter of Little Mercies could have been written by me.  I understand all too well what she has experienced and how she feels about her work.  I have to give credit to the author for capturing the voice of a social worker so well.  So often cast in the uncaring and/or  in overwhelmed role, author Heather Gudenkauf, offers a more compassionate side.  Yes, still overworked, but also as a human being with a heart and a brain.

Sometimes the calls that affect me the most are the ones in which a child is fatally or near fatally hurt in an event that could have been avoided--but also could happen to any one of us.  We can make an attempt to safety proof every aspect of our home, but there's bound to be something we forget.  I admit I laughed a little when my cousin suggested I get a lock for the toilets in the house to prevent drowning.  It has never been an issue for us, but if you do an online search, there are stories out there of children drowning in toilets. It's easy to judge those who make mistakes--step away from the bath to get a towel or grab the ringing phone, run into the market to pay for gas while leaving a sleeping infant child in the car, forgetting to slip the cover back into the electrical outlet after using it, not picking up all the pills accidentally dropped on the floor, the family party in which everyone assumes everyone else is watching the toddler near the pool, for example--all of which could lead to a child fatality or near fatality.  Heather Gudenkauf brings this issue right to the forefront in her novel, Little Mercies, as her character Ellen Moore finds herself on the other side of a child welfare investigation than she usually stands on.  I liked how the author portrayed the client reaction in regards to Ellen's situation.  You had the one who understood and offered her support and then the one who was still angry about her own situation and took it out on Ellen.

Then there is Jenny, a young girl who finds herself separated from her father, and on a bus to a city she knows nothing about.  Her father is a kind person who loves his daughter very much, but it's clear he isn't the best parent. He cannot keep a job or a roof over their head and he drinks way too much.  Jenny is more the parent than he is.  It is better than where she came from, one could argue.  Her mother chose an abusive man over Jenny.  Jenny is lucky to run into enough caring people along her journey that are willing to help her.  She is taken in by a waitress who only means to help.

Jenny is an instantly likable character.  She is suspicious of everyone, distrusting of authority, and clearly loves her dad.  There is an innocence and vulnerability about her, however, that draws those around her in. She is going through her own nightmare.  She is lost and afraid for both herself and her father.  She longs to know the mother who abandoned her.

The novel is told in alternating first person narratives by Jenny and Ellen.  Both have very distinct voices. Ellen's story would have been enough on its own.  The pain and guilt that tears Ellen and her husband apart inside, and the impact everything has on their children, is so raw.  The author does a good job of putting us inside Ellen's head and understanding where she is coming from, what she is going through.  Even as I initially warred within myself about Ellen's responsibility in what she'd done, I couldn't help but feel for her, especially when she was kept from her child in the hospital.  It seemed cruel, especially given the circumstances.  It did not take me long to soften again towards Ellen, and recognize the situation for what it was.  I can say that would never happen to me, to my daughter, but it could easily be something else.  However, Jenny's story added another dimension to the novel that I felt lightened things up, even as sad and desperate as her situation is.  I expected a little more interaction between Ellen and Jenny based on the synopsis of the story, but I think the author made the best choice given her characters and what they, especially Ellen, were going through.

My favorite character in the novel by far is Ellen's mother.  Widowed, with her children all living their own lives, she is managing as well as she can, but she is definitely lonely. I couldn't help but think of my own mother.  Both would do anything for their children and want so much to be a part of their lives.  In my case, distance is the biggest obstacle, but there's also the usual busy: work, family, etc.  By the end of the book, I had the urge to call my mother--and it was a good reminder that I need to take more time out of my busy schedule to connect with her.  Not only for her sake, but for mine as well.

The climax is high in intensity, but felt a little staged, and the ending satisfying in its own way.  I came away from this novel feeling the strength of the characters, the warmth of their hearts, and the power of redemption.  I also came away from it with a deeper appreciation for those little mercies in our lives that help us get through even when we feel at our most helpless.

Rating of Book: * (Good +)

You can learn more about Heather Gudenkauf and her books on the author's website.


Source: I received an e-copy of this book for review from the publisher via NetGalley.


© 2014, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

14 comments:

  1. An emotional driven book that allows us to think about issues like families and child abuse. The subject isn't pretty and easy to read but I'm sure it makes a good story. I'm not sure if I'd read this but it does sounds like a book not to be missed.

    And that's a lovely review, Wendy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Melody - Thank you. This really is a thought provoking novel. As much as I don't like reading novels about the work I do, I am glad I read this one.

      Delete
  2. This sounds intense! I think I would enjoy this though it sounds like there would be many many tears!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Katherine - I think you might like it too. I hope you do read it because I would like to know your thoughts on it.

      Delete
  3. This sounds like a novel with lots of layers to it. Though I'm a little disappointed that the ending felt a bit staged it otherwise sounds like a book I'd enjoy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tracy - It might have been just me who felt that way about the ending. Maybe overdramatic, might have been a better description. The novel certainly did have a lot of layers. I can see this one being a good one for book club.

      Delete
  4. Great review. This novel sounds too intense for me, though. I use books as a way of escaping the types of issues I see in the work I do. Sometimes I'll pick up a novel like this one, but less so now than a few years ago.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A.M.B. - I tend to avoid books like this too, but occasionally one comes recommended that I do end up reading. I rarely regret it.

      Delete
  5. This sounds like a worthwhile read. Lovely review! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Irene - Thank you! It really was. I am glad I took a chance on it.

      Delete
  6. I have this one loaded on my iPad and am looking forward to reading it! I am excited to hear that you enjoyed it :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Samantha - I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one, Sam! I hope you like it.

      Delete
  7. After reading One Breath Away, I became a fan of Heather Gudenkauf. It seems like she writes about important issues. This one sounds good as well and like it resonated with you. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Naida - This was my first by Heather Gudenkauf. I definitely want to try something else by her. It sounds like One Breath Away would be a good one to add to my wish list. Thank you for the recommendation!

      Delete

Thank you for taking the time to visit Musings of a Bookish Kitty. Don't be shy! I would love to hear from you. Due to a recent increase in spam, I will be moderating comments for the foreseeable future. Please be patient with me as it may take a few hours before I am able to approve your comment.