Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Review of "Little Mercies" by Heather Gudenkauf
Ohio resident Ellen Moore is a loving wife, good mother, and dedicated social worker. In the course of her job Ellen has dealt with dysfunctional families, removed children from abusive/neglectful homes, and sometimes brought parents and children back together. Nevertheless, the system sometimes failed and Ellen is haunted by cases where children suffered terrible deaths. Then one morning, the unthinkable occurs. Ellen and her husband Adam, running late and harried, fail to communicate. As a result Ellen inadvertently leaves her baby daughter Avery in a steaming car. This type of accident could literally happen to almost anybody but - in the eyes of the law and the public - Ellen is instantly dubbed a criminally neglectful parent.
A parallel story line involves ten-year-old Jenny, who was deserted by her mother years ago and now lives with her alcoholic, petty thief father who can't keep a job. Jenny's dad plans to move them from Nebraska to Iowa for new employment but gets arrested at the bus station, resulting in Jenny making the trip alone. As fate would have it Jenny ends up in the Iowa town where Ellen lives.
The book alternates between two narrators: Jenny and Ellen. Jenny is a brave and savvy ten-year-old and manages well during her bus trip, a solo meal in a pancake restaurant, and a detour to look for a relative. Luckily Jenny meets a kindly waitress named Maudene who takes her in and helps her.
Meanwhile, Ellen is in a state of high anxiety, in danger of losing her family and her job. Though Ellen's plight does elicit sympathy I found myself getting annoyed with her constant complaints about her situation.
As the story proceeds Jenny's and Ellen's parallel story lines merge resulting in a learning experience for everyone. In the end this is a book about families: how parents and children affect each other's lives.
I found the premise of the book - a social worker accused of mistreating a child - intriguing and I was interested to follow Ellen's experiences with family, friends, and the law. Jenny's tale was also compelling but less believable. At every step it seemed like Jenny had a fairy godmother looking out for her, which felt unrealistic. Still, the book tackles a sensitive subject in a sympathetic fashion and is worth reading.