Small Mercies Book Summary - Small Mercies Book explained in key points
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Small Mercies summary

Dennis Lehane

A Novel

23 mins
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    Small Mercies
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    South Boston, Massachusetts, summer of 1974

    It’s late August. It’s hot, it’s humid, and people are agitated. A couple of months before, a federal judge had decided that Black school children were at a systemic disadvantage when it came to their education, and thus public schools needed to be desegregated. And this court ruling is set to take effect on the first day of the coming school year.

    This means that students will be bused into different neighborhoods. It means that kids from exceedingly white neighborhoods like South Boston will be bused into Black neighborhoods like Roxbury – and vice versa. It means that, in just a couple of weeks, Mary Pat Fennessy’s daughter, Jules, is scheduled to attend her senior year at Roxbury High School.

    Mary Pat and Jules live in the Commonwealth, one of Southie’s affordable housing projects. Mary Pat is 42 years old, and she’s what you’d call a tough Irish broad. She’s spent her whole life in the rough-and-tumble courtyards of the Commonwealth. She doesn’t even like to cross the bridge into the integrated streets of downtown Boston if she can help it.

    Mary Pat works at a nursing home and a shoe warehouse, but it’s still a challenge for her to pay the bills. Today, after she wakes up, empties the ashtrays, throws away the empty beer cans and lights her first cigarette of the day, the doorbell rings.

    It’s Brian Shea, a guy she’s known since childhood. Along with another scary guy named Frank “Tombstone” Toomey, Brian is one of the senior members of Marty Butler’s crime crew. Mary Pat’s first husband (and Jules’s father) worked for the Butler crew, doing burglary and break-and-enter jobs. After he disappeared, she needed to get him pronounced legally dead before she could marry her second husband, Ken. Unfortunately, not long ago, Ken left both her and South Boston behind.

    Brian informs Mary Pat that Marty wants her to help prepare for the big anti-busing demonstration in downtown Boston on Friday. This involves putting some signs together and handing out some leaflets around town.

    Mary Pat doesn’t mind doing some legwork to support the anti-busing cause. As far as she’s concerned, this issue isn’t about race – it’s about the injustice of being told where your kid can and can’t go to school. It’s about a decree coming from some rich judges and politicians living in fancy neighborhoods that aren’t affected by the order. Southie and Roxbury have the same broken homes and the same marginalized people striving for the same things anyway. Why would they want to come here in the first place?

    Yet the signs and the graffiti around town tell a different story. The N-word is spray-painted across walls and parking lots, saying “go home,” “go back to Africa” and a lot worse.

    As for Jules, she can be a handful. While they’re going door-to-door, passing out leaflets, Jules gives her mother a headache by asking her what it’s all about – how can living in Southie your entire life be enough? It doesn’t make sense. She also gives Mary Pat a hard time about their household’s unpaid bills and general lack of money.

    But the bottom line is, Jules is everything to Mary Pat. Her daughter is all she’s got left. She had another child, Noel, who was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He came back, but not exactly in one piece. Something was missing, and so he turned to drugs. Noel overdosed on heroin he bought from a local dealer, George Dunbar. Everyone knows that George is the son of Marty Butler’s girlfriend. Which means George never gets arrested and never faces any consequences.

    Since Jules means so much to her, Mary Pat would love to see her with a better boyfriend than Ronald “Rum” Collins. Rum is a dimwitted kid with zero conversational skills and an idiotic laugh that makes Mary Pat want to smack him over the head. There’s dumb and nice, and dumb and mean, and she can tell that Rum will end up being very much the latter.

    All Mary Pat can do is grit her teeth and bear it when Rum and Jules’s friend Brenda show up at her apartment on a hot summer night to take her daughter out for some fun.

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    What is Small Mercies about?

    Small Mercies (2023) is an intense thriller that takes place in Boston in 1974, when the city’s busing crisis was just getting started. The story centers around a single mother in the neighborhood of South Boston, whose daughter goes missing on the same night a Black man is found dead under suspicious circumstances.

    Who should read Small Mercies?

    • Fans of historical fiction
    • Crime drama aficionados
    • Anyone craving a suspenseful story

    About the Author

    Dennis Lehane is an acclaimed American novelist and screenwriter best known for his mystery and crime fiction. He gained widespread recognition with books like Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone, Baby, Gone, all of which have been adapted into successful films. He has also been a writer for television series like The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, as well as the miniseries Black Bird. Lehane's works often explore complex characters and moral dilemmas set against the backdrop of working-class communities, making him a notable figure in contemporary American literature.

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