A gifted young Canadian writer makes her debut in the United States with a dark and spell-binding tale of erotic and pang-ridden legacy of forbidden love.
A handsome priest named August Day arrives in the well-ordered town of Mercy, Manitoba, to take over the church of St. Mary Immaculate. In the first days of his tenure he falls in love with the young bride of the town butcher. Their mutual obsession grows to the point that its aftermath leaves scars on the town decades and generations after their love affair is over.
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|Publisher:||Delphinium Books, Incorporated|
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About the Author
Alissa York has won several of Canada’s leading literary prizes for emerging young writers. Her latest novel, Effigy, about the Mountain Meadows massacre, in the Utah Territory in September 1857, was recently published. She lives with her husband in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Read an Excerpt
THEN (June 1948 – June 1949)
1 BEEF: A GOOD BLEED
Six o’clock. Thomas Rose steps out from behind his counter and crosses to the shop window, finding Train Street long with light, deserted for the supper hour. In the opposing storefront he can see Hy Warner bending to sweep the last feathery mound of hair into his dustpan. Thomas lifts his hand as Hy straightens, anticipating the barber’s evening wave. It’s a small thing the kind of thing Thomas was dying for when he landed in Mercy, Manitoba, determined to call it home.
He might not have made the best impression that day a sweetish stench wafting before him down the corridors of the town hall but he had an honest face, hard-working hands and, most importantly, the down payment in cash. Besides, the purchase seemed meant to be. The butcher shop’s previous owner was called Ross, so Thomas didn’t have to lay out for a whole new sign. Just change the second s to an e and it was Rose’s Fine Meats. To celebrate, he had the sign painter crack open a small can of red and add a garish, overblown rose.
Upon finding that the place had no killing room, he immediately set about converting the garage. He had a sink plumbed in, sunk a drain in the concrete floor, screwed in hooks, rigged up a couple of block-and-tackle hoists. Two tables, a hog vat, a V-shaped box for lambs. It seemed the late Charlie Ross had taken on only butcher-ready carcasses and wholesale cuts. Thomas didn’t judge him for it, either. He knew better than anyone, slaughtering was a whole other thing.
It’s four years now since he built it, and the killing room has long since paid off. It’ll keep on paying, too, just so long as there are those who haven’t the stomach to slaughter their own. Take the heifer he’s got tied up in there now, hauled in that morning by Ida Stone. Poor woman husband long dead, stuck raising her drunk daughter’s kids.
“They’ve gotten attached to the animal,” Ida confided across the cow’s back. “Especially the boy. You know how the city makes them. I’d keep her for a pet if I could, but a woman in my position doesn’t have a whole lot of choice.”
“Never you mind, Mrs. Stone,” Thomas assured her. “She’ll come back to you in brown paper parcels. They’ll never be the wiser.”
He’s a great comfort to the women of the town. They linger gossiping in his shop, find themselves buying finer cuts than they’re used to, asking for cooking tips, how long and how hot, even what side dish to serve. He listens to them, really listens. He doesn’t have to try, either growing up, he was his mother’s only friend.
He’s entertaining, too, another skill he honed at home, reaching down into Sarah Rose’s dark. Sometimes he impresses the housewives of Mercy with his hands, surprisingly agile for their size. Without warning he’ll take the tip of his knife to a steak fillet and carve a snowflake or a butterfly or a bird.
He opens the screen door to pull the glass one shut, flips the sign to read Sorry We’re Closed. So what if he puts on a bit of a show. It’s good for business, and it doesn’t hurt to hear a woman’s laugh now and then, feel the warmth of a female smile. He pauses, grinning to himself. After tomorrow he’ll have all the female warmth he needs.
He opens the killing-room door, and the cow lifts her head and lows softly. Thomas is good with animals, always has been. She’s calm, a little curious even, despite the strange surroundings, the rope at her ankles, the sledgehammer in his hand.
He could’ve had his pick in that town. The hiccup in his heart kept him out of the war, but otherwise he’s in his prime, not exactly handsome, but not bad either, beefy, a build plenty of women like. His sandy brush cut harbours little grey. He owns his own business and the apartment above, and if he takes a drink now and then, it’s never more than two.
He’s had offers. The Price girl hanging over his display case, all but spilling out the top of her dress. Or Pauline Trask those long, lashy stares while she complains about her husband going out on the rails for nights at a time. Rachel Kane has cooled off now she’s married, but Thomas can still remember the day she broke down in his shop, crying about her fiancé blown to bits overseas. She bawled until he offered a shoulder, then snuggled in close, moving her small, wet mouth against his neck.
But there’s only ever been Mathilda. She was the first person he spoke to upon arriving in Mercy on foot, grey with road dust and reeking of pork. When he asked her for directions, she pointed without a single word. No one would call Mathilda pretty. Sloe-eyed and slender, with loose red hair, she made a far deeper impression than that. She was too young for marrying, so he waited. Four long years he waited, until the day she turned nineteen. Meantime, he heard all about her from behind his counter.
Transplanted to Mercy at the tender age of nine, she was niece to the Catholic church housekeeper, the wild-oat progeny of a wayward brother long gone. Mathilda had her father’s looks, though most agreed they sat better on a boy Jimmy Nickels always having been one to tie a girl’s stomach up in knots. God only knows what the mother was. She was either dead or no mother at all, for the child had been shut up in an orphanage since infancy.
And just how did the housekeeper get wind of her abandoned niece? Some said Jimmy wrote a letter one of very few indeed in which he hinted at a Winnipeg girl he’d got in trouble and left behind. No return address but postmarked Yellowknife, or Vancouver, or Chicago, Illinois. Others claimed it was one of the sisters at the orphanage who wrote, a new one perhaps, who made an extra effort to track relations down. In any case, Vera Nickels boarded the westbound train alone and stepped off the eastbound two days later with her chin in the air and a slip of a girl in tow. It was anyone’s guess under what sordid circumstances Mathilda had been conceived. “You know those Catholics,” Louise Harlen said once, after making sure there were none in the shop.
Thomas moves in close to the heifer and pats her hot flank. “Mmmmm,” he murmurs in her flicking ear, “mmm, mmmm.”
He steps out in front of her and she lowers her head, closing her eyes for a scratch. As if through a scope, two cross-hairs appear, extending from the base of each horn to the opposite eye. Thomas hoists the sledge, strikes short and sure in the crook of the invisible cross. The cow sags, crashing to her side at his feet.
From the beginning Mathilda put him in mind of a doe. Not the way most people think of them, passive and maternal, nibbling leaves. Thomas knew their insides. His old man took a yearly trip back to the bush he came from, hunting over the limit, out of season, regardless of sex the owner of a slaughterhouse killing on his own time. The deer he hauled home were radiant beneath their hides, scanty scented fat over muscle meat rich and red. As graceful on the cutting table as they were among the trees. The loveliest carcasses Thomas had ever seen.
He picks up his sticking knife and turns his back to the stunned cow, stretching its neck out long by bracing his boot heels against foreleg and jaw. Bending and reaching back between his legs, he starts at its breastbone, cutting a foot-long slit up the throat, deep enough so the windpipe shows. He lifts the blade out and re-enters where he began. Tip pointed to the shoulder-tops, he cuts down hard toward the head. Severed vessels spurt. Thomas spins round and stoops to grab the beast’s tail, placing one boot firmly on its side. Begins pumping, weight on the foot, then release and pull up hard on the tail. Over and over, make a heart of the body to hasten the bleed.
Reading Group Guide
1. There are extensive descriptions of Thomas Rose’s work as a butcher cutting meat, slaughtering animals, working in his shop in the first half of Mercy. Discuss the effect of the more graphic scenes on your reading and your view of him as a character. How did the killing room scenes make you feel? Did they help you to understand Thomas’s emotions and approach to life?
2. Mathilda spent her early years in an orphanage, her mother having died shortly after giving birth and her father unknown. August was raised by his prostitute mother, and Thomas’s mother’s tenderness was little salve for the anguish inflicted by his abusive father. Discuss parenting and the role of childhood memories in Mercy. Consider other parent-child relationships as well, such as those between later characters (Carl and Clare, Castor and Mary).
3. Why does Mathilda marry Thomas? What do you think their marriage would have been like if Father Day had not come to town? Any different?
4. Why does Mathilda flee her home while giving birth, and then abandon her newborn in the bog? Is there more to it than just hiding the fact that Thomas isn’t the father?
5. What role does Castor, the visionary drunk, have in this novel? Why is he rejected by his brother’s family? Why does he raise Mary alone, in the bog, instead of taking her to town when he finds her?
6. Alissa York has said that Mercy is a book about love: “What it takes to give and receive it, what happens to us when we don’t.” Discuss the importance of love, in all of its forms, in this novel.
7. What do you think of the relationship between Vera Nickels and Father Rock? Was Vera’s love unrequited? Compare their relationship with that of Mathilda and August.
8. Much of the last half of the novel is narrated by Clare, Reverend Mann’s autistic three-year-old daughter, in a direct, first-person voice that we don’t see in the rest of the book. What is the role of Clare in this story? What is she saying to her father?
9. After being born on the same day, Mary Wylie and Lavinia Wylie are destined to lead very different lives. Compare these women in terms of how they interact with their individual worlds. And does Lavinia change at all during the night she spends waiting for Carl?
10. What happens to Reverend Carl Mann while he’s in Mary’s care? Do you think that his stay in the bog has changed any of his beliefs or his plans? Is it too much to suggest that he may have been reborn?
11. At one point, Mathilda says, “Cleaning St. Mary’s is a sacred duty. The Church is the Body of Christ.” Discuss Mathilda’s religious devotion, and how it is entwined with her passion for August Day. What happens to Mathilda after she receives the small book from Vera (the Song of Songs)? Is Thomas wrong to ask Mathilda to back away from her commitment to the Church?
12. The black spruce bog on the outskirts of Mercy holds its own fair share of secrets not only the truth of what happened to Mathilda, August, and Mary, but the little known natural remedies used to heal Carl Mann. What does the bog represent in this novel? How about nature, and the natural world, in general?
13. Discuss Alissa York’s use of religious imagery, particularly in terms of how she portrays the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. Consider also the Catholic sacraments, including marriage, confession, Communion, and the anointing of the sick.
14. How successful is this novel as a portrait of a small-town life, both in the Mercy of 1948-49 and the Mercy of today?
15. Discuss the headings Alissa York uses each time she shifts to a different character’s perspective. What effect did they have on your reading? Look for parallels between the headings of the first half of the book and those of the second half.
16. Who do you consider to be the most sympathetic character here? The least?
17. Discuss the title, Mercy. Besides the town itself, what sorts of “mercy” are hoped for, received, or denied in this novel?