Originally published June 2014
Looking for a no-muss, no-fuss page turner for your beach book bucket list?
Heather Gudenkauf’s “Little Mercies” is just that—suspense coming from all directions as the lives of a little girl who has previously suffered abuse and a young mother whose job it is to put abusers away and keep kids safe collide in a small town in Iowa.
Jenny Briard is just 10 years old, but has already experienced more pain and disappointment than most adults. Thought to be abused and abandoned by her mother, this time around it’s Jenny’s dad who does the disappointing and she soon finds herself alone on a bus headed nowhere fast. Ellen Moore is a young mother of three, working full time as a social worker and married to a devoted husband. Trying to do it all, the worst happens.
Honestly, as one of the early and important chapters played out, the possibility of what was about to happen jumped out at me and I had to seriously consider whether or not I should continue to read the book. The tragedy that unfolds is right up there in the Top 5 Mother Nightmares. Should you see it coming too, I urge you to stick with it. It’s not an easy emotional read—rather, it’s gut-wrenching. But it’s what makes the story and its characters real. Bad things do happen to good people. Great moms still make mistakes. And it can happen to anyone.
Jenny’s journey is also an uncomfortable one—she’s just trying to make it to her grandmother’s house, only to learn she has passed away. It’s Ellen’s mother, Maudene, that befriends Jenny and takes her in while she tries to sort out just who is living in Jenny’s grandmother’s house. The most tragic moment for Jenny comes at the novel’s climax—an act of cruelty and betrayal on the surface, a mother’s sacrifice underneath.
Gudenkauf takes great care in establishing these characters’ back stories, and while I wish she had created a stronger emotional attachment for the reader to the one great loss in Ellen’s career, I do understand the reader is better served by saving that connection for Ellen herself, and for Jenny. There are a few plot lines I felt like could have been explored more in-depth, such as the district attorney’s drive to prosecute a tragic mistake—there seemed to be some unexplained venom in his actions. And Ellen’s having to rely on someone who previously seemed to be a mortal enemy perhaps could have generated a few more tension-filled pages. That said, a good editor reins the author in and keeps her on track, and the result is a tighter, more intense novel.
I have been a fan of Gudenkauf since her debut, “The Weight of Silence” and followups “These Things Hidden” and “One Breath Away.” She employs a multi-narrator approach that keeps the reader from tiring from a singular voice and allows for perspective. Hers is an engaging style and very easy to just read and read until you’ve finished the book in a single day at the beach. You’ll be drawn into her world and won’t leave until the ending is revealed. Put this on the beach read list and you won’t be sorry.