A story about racial tensions tosses most of us back more than, “Four score and seven years ago,” to a time when, “Our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
But that’s too far.
A handful of us, some Okies like myself, remember the stories in our state history books about the land runs and the Trail of Tears.
But that’s still too far.
Not many of us think about racial tension and inequality in generations so recent we can still touch the lines upon their faces; some of them haven’t even grayed. Shades of Mercy, by Anita Lustrea and Caryn Rivadeneira, sheds light upon those obscured years.
Set in the 1950s, Shades of Mercy, is a refreshingly sweet romance, grounded in the gritty truth of harsh farm life in rural Maine. Fifteen-year-old, Mercy, is of well respected stock, working diligently as the “son her father never had”, on their successful farm in Watsonville, Maine. Her family loves her and her parents are devout Christians raising their daughter to have strong biblical morals, and especially to have a respect for all human life, no matter what their race. So it’s only a minor problem that she’s fallen in love with Mick, a young Maliseet Indian.
At least, it’s only a minor problem in Mercy’s imagination.
The Maliseet are marginalized in Watsonville. On the land of their own fore fathers, they now live on Hungry Hill, or an area more appropriately identified as the city dump. In tattered shelters, shacks really, whole families live hand to mouth and many of the men have dissolved into drunken depression. Among these is Mick’s family.
Mercy’s father, Mr. Pop, is the lone, white farmer who generously offers work to the Maliseet men and pays them fair wages. Often Mercy is allowed to drive the pickup to Hungry Hill to pick up Mick and his relatives and bring them to Mr. Pop’s farm to work. On those special days, she and Mick quietly nurture their relationship, hiding it as best they can, knowing that the entire town will frown upon their love.
The blanket of secrecy is yanked out from under them when Marjorie Carmichael, the older sister of Mercy’s best friend, runs away with her Maliseet boyfriend, Glenn. Mr. Carmichael is livid and blames the entire Maliseet tribe for the disappearance of his daughter. Tempers simmer, those who had inklings of Mercy and Mick’s romance begin to mention it publicly, drawing them into the conflict. Then, Mr. Carmichael accuses Mick of a horrible crime.
The only ones willing to defend Mick are Mercy’s family. Fortunately, her father’s brother, Roger, is a capable lawyer, deeply involved in promoting equal rights for the Maliseet. While Mick waits in jail, Mercy’s family works desperately to vindicate him. Mercy herself struggles to cling to Mick’s promises of “someday” when they will be able to be together publicly, without shame.
Shades of Mercy is a touching story, though personally, I feel it lacks the depth to fully engage an adult audience. Mick and Mercy’s romance is portrayed very well for what it is - a teenage romance. The dialogue is a stilted and awkward between them sometimes, just like two high schoolers would be today. At one point, they communicate by passing notes between them, but instead of writing to each other, they draw pictures of woodchucks burrowing underground. Accurate for a youthful crush; perhaps not so entertaining for an adult reader.
Lustrea is a native of Maine and does a superb job of orally painting the countryside. Her vivid descriptions left me actually feeling the chill of Maine’s winter months. Occasionally, these descriptive scenes, like the family’s attendance of the annual festival and fair, seem a little irrelevant to the story, but they are enjoyable nonetheless.
The resolution of the central conflict, Mick’s imprisonment and the secrecy of his and Mercy’s romance, seems unmemorable. The man Mick is accused of putting into a coma, perhaps on his death bed, wakes up with full consciousness of the incident and vindicates Mick. Shortly after, the young Maliseet is released, he and Mercy are restored. Since the whole town has come to know their feelings, and Mercy’s father has always vouched for the Maliseet’s equality, they kiss publicly.
The Indian Rights Council plays a background role in the story. Throughout the book, Mr. Pop and his brother attend Council meetings and push for the Maliseet’s rights. However, when the story concludes, the reader is left with only hope for a righteous outcome.
Shades of Mercy, kept me entertained, though by the final chapter I was ready for the happy ending and a more complicated story. I think the book will be most enjoyable for a young, teenage audience.
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