Mercy Snow is a beautifully written novel that examines a microcosm of human struggles concerning economic stability versus the damage to lives and nature. The writing is beautiful, but the setting is corrupt and toxic. Fortunately, Mercy Snow, the eponymous young woman at the heart of the story, has such remarkable strength of character that she somehow lifts the atmosphere and provides hope.
Set in the small town of Titan Falls on the Androscoggin river, the novel illuminates the far-reaching corrosive effects of the town's paper mill, the main source of employment.
Paper mills have caused tremendous environmental damage (link to more information of paper mill damage): polluting the air and dumping hazardous chemicals and waste into rivers and streams. The smell is offensive and permeates surrounding areas, a not so subtle reminder of all of the other damage inflicted on both the environment and the local population.
There is another kind of damage that often accompanies an industry of this kind, the dependence of a poor population on the very industry that blights the landscape and their lives. This contamination is two-fold: 1) a social hierarchy where the majority are at the bottom and often a single family inhabits the top rung, and 2) such economic vulnerability, that those at the bottom not only endure the ravages inflicted by the industry, but aid in its support because without it, they would not eat. (This phenomenon is not restricted to the paper mills, of course.)
When Mercy Snow, her brother Zeke, and her young sister Hannah arrive in Titan Falls, they are quite literally at the bottom of the food chain. When an accident sends a school bus off the road causing the death of a young woman, Zeke is blamed. Mercy does her best to get at the truth of the matter, but prejudice against the Snow family is of long standing, and Zeke makes a convenient target.
In her attempts to clear Zeke, Mercy's main opponent is June McAllister, wife of the mill owner. June is determined to get rid of the Snows. Her influence in the town in enormous, and she wields it without compunction because she is trying to protect her own family.
There are several mysteries hidden in this town and in the novel, and Baker takes her time in revealing information. Concentrating on the main characters and their strengths and weaknesses, Baker gradually discloses enough of the past to illustrate how past is prologue (aah, Will, you had such a way with words).
And Tiffany Baker, too, has a way with words:
...a prick of gossip could go only so far before it would shred too much of the common fabric.
Afterward it was as if something inside of him had been irrevocably rearranged, like a box of dishes dropped, shattered, and then shelved for good.
...for just as her time in the woods with those two men was a memory she wished to keep to herself, as stagnant and singular as a puddle drying up on asphalt, she knew that Zeke also had pockets of similar disquiet that wouldn't evaporate in him either....
A silence fell over the room as the women took their needles, bent their heads, and began to stitch, their needles pricking, prying, and then just as quickly closing the little holes they were making in the fabric of one another's lives.
I found myself especially drawn to the thread/fabric motif that runs through the novel and had to be careful not to use those quotes exclusively. Baker's facility with language is truly a gift.
The book contrasts the harsh realities of a paper mill town in decline and Mercy's dedicated and determined love of her family, with a delicate vein of magical realism thrown in.
NetGalley/Hachette Book Group
Contemporary Fiction. 2014. Print version: 336 pages.