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SMALL MERCIES by Dennis Lehane: Book Review

The summer of 1974 was one of the worst in Boston’s history.  After years of legal challenges, U. S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity rules that the Boston public schools must desegregate.  As part of that plan, Black students from Roxbury High School would be bused to Boston South High School and white students from Boston South would be bused to Roxbury High School.

Protests and riots followed, with students and police being assaulted and gravely injured.  Small Mercies opens two months before the desegregation order is to take effect, and the hot, steamy Boston summer does nothing to cool tempers.

Southie, an almost exclusively white Catholic enclave in the city, is home to Mary Pat Fennessey and her teenage daughter Jules.  Widowed once and deserted/divorced once, Mary Pat is barely holding it together by adding a second shift at her second job at a shoe warehouse.  She’s working as hard as she can, but she can’t seem to get ahead–her gas has been shut off–“But she still has three more shifts and a trip to the billing office before we can boil water or roast a chicken again….”  In the midst of all this, there are two major upheavals in her life.

The first is the busing issue itself, and Mary Pat is creating signs for a protest in front of City Hall Plaza to demonstrate the white community’s opposition to the judge’s ruling.  The second, more personal, is the disappearance of her seventeen-year-old daughter Jules, who goes out with three friends one afternoon and doesn’t return home that evening.

At first Mary Pat is not overly worried because her daughter has spent the night away from home before.  However, when Jules isn’t home by breakfast time the next morning, Mary Pat starts getting concerned.  She makes a couple of phone calls to the parents of one of the friends that her daughter went out with the day before and is assured that Jules isn’t there.  Don’t worry, says the girl’s mother, “….they alway turn up.”  But, Mary Pat thinks, sometimes they don’t.

When she arrives at work, Mary Pat gets her first look at the day’s paper which features a story about a Black man found dead on the tracks of the Columbia Station.  The consensus of the other white women at the Meadow Lane Manor is that he was a drug dealer, otherwise why would he be in the subway station heading toward Southie, which is in the opposite direction of Roxbury where, as a Black man, he surely must have lived?  But as Mary Pat takes a closer look at the article, she realizes that the young man was the son of one of their co-workers, the only Black hospital aide at the nursing home.

So now there are two grieving mothers, one with a missing daughter and one with a dead son.  What is the connection?

As always, Dennis Lehane has written a compelling novel filled with suspense, humor, and humanity.  You can read more about him at and view him discussing Small Mercies on the CBS program

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


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