The Unraveling of Mercy Louis
There was an actual person named Mercy Lewis from Falmouth, Maine, born in 1675. She lost both her parents and became an orphan while very young. Separated from her family, like so many girls in Salem, Massachusetts, Mercy lived with Reverend George Burroughs as a maid and then later with the family of Thomas Putnam, a distant relative. With Ann Putnam and the others, Mercy herself became a very vocal accuser during the 1692 witchcraft trials. THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS is a tale of abject terror --- a brutal taking down of a golden American girl, through a mysterious epidemic that sends the town into a witch hunt-type frenzy, swirling from Mercy to so many others in a cloud of lies and secrets.
THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS is rooted in the anxiety and jealousy of the American girlhood, the shocking stories of so many girls suffering from teen rape, discrimination of all kinds and hyper-sexualization in our ever-present pop culture. This inspired debut novelist Keija Parssinen to take up their mantle and find a story that would wrap itself around these traumas while offering up a thrilling mystery that combines the power of Stephen King’s CARRIE with those same accusatory girls from the Salem Witch trials. Mean girls, confused girls, anxious and frightened girls --- this is a story that encompasses all their heartbreaks and horrors between two covers.
Port Sabine is a Southeast Texas town that is mired in all things American. Its religious evangelicalism tends to riddle the town with outbursts of strange and inspired craziness. The town’s star basketball champion, Mercy Louis, is affected in a particular way --- her grandmother has visions of the Rapture and considers herself hard at work on maintaining Mercy’s virtue. Mercy was abandoned long ago by her mother Charmaine, who writes her strange, cryptic letters that grandmother Evelia thinks are a threat. Mercy finds a great release on the court, where she is a natural-born talent. Her team manager, Illa Stark, is amazed by her abilities, beauty and talent, but soon it becomes clear that not all is well in anybody’s house. When the last day of school brings with it a tragic moment, all the girls in town are considered suspect. Suddenly, though, they all fall ill with a mysterious ailment, and the town may never recover.
"THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS is a rich and compelling novel, filled with the intense descriptions of that moment between childhood and adulthood in which all transitions, no matter how healthy, are tricky and wavering."
Parssinen said she spent a lot of time investigating the idea of mass delusions and hysteria and that she felt a direct kinship between that idea and the conflicting ideas about how girls should act and live that affect all teens around the country. The author grew up in Texas and found that the mixed messages made her growing up particularly difficult, as those mixed messages and half-truths affect the girls in the story. This is a powerful reminder of how important in our modern age the truth can be --- and how detrimental it can be if we forget the messages of the past and infantilize girls in a way that makes it hard for them to decipher exactly what course of action is best and safest for them to take in their lives.
THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS is a rich and compelling novel, filled with the intense descriptions of that moment between childhood and adulthood in which all transitions, no matter how healthy, are tricky and wavering. Mercy’s situation and the lives of all the girls around her are traumatized in a way that feels real --- even though what is going on is heightened Salem Witch Trial material. Parssinen is able to draw us into a difficult and fraught situation in a way that a more mature author would be expected to do. She clearly feels a kinship with the characters, and we feel the same --- not just for Mercy, although her story is front and center, but also for everyone stuck in this horrible nightmare.
This is a fascinating look at the machinations of a variety of American archetypes, chief among them teenagers, humans who are unusually affected by the feelings and concerns of others, and the adults who lie to them in the hopes of protecting them from realities that end up affecting them anyway. Mercy and the girls find what is lacking in modern American society the hard way --- making mistakes that other American girls have made so long ago in history. Some things unfortunately never change.
THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS should be read by children and parents alike and discussed openly for all the clues it offers on how NOT to guide kids to adulthood. I can’t wait to see what genre-bending Parssinen delves into next.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 2, 2015