MTYT: Small Mercies


Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

This month we present four stories from around the world that highlight events in which incidents of kindness shine within dire to horrendous circumstances. In many ways, the kindness shown in these narratives is both courageous and unexpected. We begin with Small Mercies (2020) by Bridget Krone, an author from South Africa and features an interracial family. We then move to Beast Rider (2019) by Tony Johnston and Marïa Elena Fontanot de Rhoads about a young boy making his way to Los Angeles from Mexico. In week three, Marilyn and Holly are joined by Jean to discuss The Blackbird Girls (2020) by Anne Blankman, who relays a story of Chernobyl, and then during week four, the three of us examine 28 Days: A Novel of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto (2020) by David Safier. The four books stand as testaments that it takes people to enact kindness as the world negotiates a new normal as well as changes that have long been delayed. And finally, in week five, we talk about picturebooks that present acts of kindness that can be paired with one of these four books or used on their own.

HOLLY: Small Mercies introduces readers to Mercy, a mixed-race youngster in elementary school, who lives with her two white older aunts in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. While they live in poverty, they are rich in story, compassion, and suspicion of governmental interventions that include social workers and others who might disrupt their fragile balance in the world. But the world begins to shift when Aunt Flora begins to lapse into confusion, and a developer shows up to “encourage” them to sell their house. In addition, the school believes a visit from the social worker is needed because Mercy has been accused of stealing classroom funds. In essence, the stress and trauma become overwhelming for the three family members who need a miracle to create the stability they all need to thrive.

Marilyn, I loved this story and Mercy as a protagonist. She was both a child and an old soul who had already experienced so much more than many young people, especially those in her classroom. She tried so hard to be invisible to keep from being targeted by a class bully, and her love for her life and her aunts was undeniable. I also really love the aunts! Their attitude toward schooling as a way of loving Mercy showed how inclusion and understanding diverse cultures is so necessary when working interculturally. This month we are talking about kindness shining in dire circumstances, yet I have not yet mentioned much about this theme. I see kindness in the aunts who attempt to help Mercy negotiate some of the negative elements at school, and I also see Mercy’s kindness toward a classmate that is more of a pariah than Mercy. What do you think about those who showed kindness to Mercy and her aunts?

MARILYN: I thought the character, Mr. Singh who rented a back room of the house was an angel sent to help Mercy and her aunts. He did so many things to help out and then was there to defend them when a crisis occurred. He had a way of supporting Mercy when her anxiety became overwhelming. His kindness made a difference in the lives of the aunts and Mercy. But he also wanted to help expand Mercy’s learning experiences. An example of that is when he took Mercy to see the statue of Gandhi. Mr. Singh also coached her when she gave her oral report on bees. “‘Tell the truth,’ he said to her. ‘Even if your voice shakes.'”

Holly, I also thought that Mercy’s teacher, Mrs Pruitt, who in the beginning of the story was not kind to Mercy or most of the other students, came through to help Mercy and her family. Her honesty and kindness with Mercy when Mercy asks for her help, changed the outcome of the crisis at Mercy’s house. But first, Mrs. Pruitt, was direct about her skill as a teacher with Mercy. “The truth — pure and simple,” …is that I have been a dreadful teacher.” After that confession. Mrs. Pruitt comes through by figuring out how her whole class can help Mercy and her family. That confession was most kind and helped Mrs. Pruitt herself as well as her students.

Of course, Mercy’s aunts show her kindness and love throughout the novel, even when they are undergoing tremendous stress. After Mercy’s beloved pet chicken, Lemon, dies Mercy is devastated. The morning after Lemon dies, Mercy wakes to find that Aunt Mary has boiled water for her to wash. “It was the blessing of hot water and the laying on of hands that brought out the tears —which can sometimes be the effect of kindness.” Aunt Mary offers this kindness despite knowing that on that day they may lose their home to a developer. She takes time to help Mercy grieve.

One of the important parts of this story was about how Mercy made changes in her life because she was treated with kindness. There are numerous other people in the story who demonstrate kindness, especially neighbors and then the students in Mercy’s class. Their support helps Mercy overcome her anxiety and begin to thrive.

HOLLY: Yes, I really appreciated the kindness shown to Mercy and her aunts throughout the story. I also noted that the kindness came from the community, and not so much the school until Mercy asked for it. Hmmm, I will have to think about that some more. I wonder how much we miss as teachers because of either the work or the number of students. I know so many fall through the cracks, but then I also have to think about how our society puts so much on teachers and others who are charged with caring for others. I feel like that is a bit of a rabbit hole, when I start to ponder how—as a society—some are charged, by the nature of their jobs, to take care of the caring aspects of society when in actuality it takes every one of us to care for others within our communities. I’m just thinking about the responsibility that comes with living with other people. And it seemed Mercy’s neighbors understood that responsibility, not as a burden, but rather something everyone does because we are in this cosmic thing together. This book is really a nice example of community responsibility that we are discussing as kindness. I would really like to think more about how kindness and social responsibility connect. There is a lot to ponder in this book, and perhaps that is why I liked it so much, Marilyn.

MARILYN: One of the things I appreciate about your choice of this book, Holly, is that it takes place in contemporary South Africa. Very few books about that place are available for young people. Reading this book showed me the diversity of the population of that country and how the different cultures blend.

Title: Small Mercies
Author: Bridget Krone
Illustrator: Karen Vermeulen
ISBN: 9781946395160
Publisher: CatalystPress
PubDate: February 25, 2020

Throughout December 2020, Marilyn Carpenter, Holly Johnson, and Jean Schroeder discuss how kindness shines through dire and horrendous circumstances. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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