Fiction Set in New Brunswick and PEICreated by kileyturner on May 14, 2013
Mercy Among the Children received effusive praise from the critics, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and won the Giller Prize. It was named one of 2000’s best books, became a national bestseller in hardcover for months, and would be published in the US and UK. It is seen, however, as being at odds with literary fashion for concerning itself with good and evil and the human freedom to choose between them — an approach that puts Richards, as Maclean’s magazine says, firmly in t …
The small Catholic churches here are all the same, white clapboard drenched with snow or blistering under a northern sun, their interiors smelling of confessionals and pale statues of the Madonna. Our mother, Elly Henderson, took us to them all along our tract of road — thinking that solace would come.
In November the lights shone after seven o'clock on the stained-glass windows. The windows show the crucifixion or one of the saints praying. The hills where those saints lived and dropped their blood look soft, distant and blue; the roads wind like purple ribbons toward the Mount of Olives. It is all so different from real nature with its roaring waters over valleys of harsh timber where I tore an inch and a half of skin from my calves. Or Miramichi bogs of cedar and tamarack and the pungent smell of wet moosehide as the wounded moose still bellows in dark wood. I often wanted to enter the world of the stained glass — to find myself walking along the purple road, with the Mount of Olives behind me. I suppose because I wanted to be good, and my mother wanted goodness for me. I wanted too to escape the obligation I had toward my own destiny, my family, my sister and brother who were more real to me than a herd of saints.
My father's name was Sydney Henderson. He was born in a shack off Highway 11, a highway only Maritimers could know — a strip of asphalt through stunted trees and wild dead fields against the edge of a cold sky.
He did poorly in school but at church became the ward of Father Porier. He was given the job of washing Porier's car and cleaning his house. He was an altar boy who served mass every winter morning at seven. He did this for three years, from the age of eight to eleven.
Then one day there was a falling-out, an "incident," and Father Porier's Pontiac never again came down the lane to deliver him home, nor did Father ever again trudge off to the rectory to clean the priest's boots. Nor did he know that his own father would take the priest's side and beat him one Sunday in front of most of the parishioners on the church steps. This became Father's first disobedience, not against anything but the structure of things. I have come to learn, however, that this is not at all a common disobedience.
Back then, harsh physical labour seemed the only thing generations of Canadians like my grandfather considered work. So by thirteen my father wore boots and checked jackets, and quit school to work in the woods, in obligation to his father. He would spend days with little to comfort him. He was to need this strength, a strength of character, later on. He had big hands like a pulpcutter, wore thick glasses, and his hair was short, shaved up the side of his head like a zek in some Russian prison camp.
He worked crossing back and forth over that bleak highway every day; when the June sky was black with no-see-ums, or all winter when the horse dung froze as it hit the ground. He was allergic to horses, yet at five in the morning had to bring the old yellow mare to the front of the barn — a mare denied oats and better off dead.
My grandfather bought a television in 1962, and during the last few years of his life would stare at it all evening, asking Sydney questions about the world far away. The light of the television brought into that dark little house programs like The Honeymooners, The Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Untouchables; and glowed beyond the silent window into the yard, a yard filled with desolate chips of wood.
My grandfather Roy Henderson would ask Dad why people would act in a movie if they knew they were going to be shot. He would not be completely convinced by my father's explanation about movie scripts and actors, and became more disheartened and dangerous the clearer the explanation was.
"But they die — I seen them."
"No they don't, Dad."
"Ha — lot you know, Syd — lot you know — I seen blood, and blood don't lie, boy — blood don't lie. And if ya think blood lies I'll smash yer mouth, what I'll do."
As a teen my father sat in this TV-lightened world; a shack in the heat of July watching flies orbit in the half dark. He hid there because his father tormented him in front of kids his own age.
I have learned that because of this torment, Father became a drunk by the age of fifteen.
People did not know (and what would it matter if they had known?) that by the time he was fifteen, my father had read and could quote Stendhal and Proust. But he was trapped in a world of his own father's fortune, and our own fortune became indelibly linked to it as well.
Charlotte Taylor lived in the front row of history. In 1775, at the young age of twenty, she fled her English country house and boarded a ship to Jamaica with her lover, the family’s black butler. Soon after reaching shore, Charlotte’s lover died of yellow fever, leaving her alone and pregnant in Jamaica. In the sixty-six years that followed, she would find refuge with the Mi’kmaq of what is present-day New Brunswick, have three husbands, nine more children and a lifelong relationship with …
It’s just an hour after dawn on the first Monday in May 1775 when the Anton lurches its bulk away from the docks at Bristol and sets sail for the West Indies. Charlotte Taylor is at the rail, rivetted to the huge square sails puffing out like bullies in the wind and bucking the ship into the open sea. A tall woman with flame-red hair tied in a knot at her neck, she keeps her eye to the bow as if setting her own course and her back to the land she has left behind. Standing beside her at the rail is Pad Willisams, her lover and co-conspirator in the hurried exit from Charlotte’s family, Pad’s job as butler in the Taylor household and a truth they each had only a part of.
A hastily packed trunk is stowed with the cargo. The calico sack she’d prepared for the voyage, and now realizes is pathetically inadequate since the trunk cannot be opened again until they reach shore six to eight weeks from now, is slung over her back.
A scrofulous man of indiscriminate age eyes her repeatedly from his place by the forward capstan. He’s one of the woebegone collection of humanity she’s travelling with–mostly men in their twenties and thirties and one young boy with freckles on his nose who seems to be in the employ of the haughty Captain Skinner. They all stare shamelessly at the white woman and the black man by her side. Pad has pulled together all the stiff dignity of the butler he had been just days earlier, but she can feel the anxiety that thrums through him. She is somewhat surprised to realize that she isn’t daunted by the stares, the days ahead or the consequences of leaving her family’s country home outside of London. Standing in the brisk wind on the deck of a sailing ship just a week after her twentieth birthday, Charlotte Taylor is unafraid–maybe even elated.
She’s still leaning on the portside, watching the water, letting the wind blow on her face when she allows herself to cast her thoughts to what she has run away from. The terrible row with her father when he learned she’d been “consorting,” as he called it, with Pad. The endless rounds of tea, the suffocating rules and her mother’s predictable attacks of the vapours whenever there was a hint of excitement in the household. She smiles in anticipation of the life ahead. A marriage to the dashing Pad, a home in the tropics. She’s grinning at the prospects when Pad interrupts her reverie to suggest they go below and secure their living quarters.
The quarters are cramped; the ceiling is so low they have to duck their heads. The bunks are arranged in two rows, one on each side of the dreary lower deck with damp curtains hanging between them to lend an illusion of privacy. There are hooks on which to hang their possessions and a lopsided stove in the centre. The only light and fresh air is from the hatch to the upper deck; the quarters smell of mildew and rotten wood. Indeed, the black streaks of rot crawling up the legs of the cots speak of the months at sea, the flourishing business of carrying human and other cargo across the ocean as many times as the weather will allow between May and October, never stopping long enough to refit or repair.
They pick a bunk at the end of the row and tie their sacks to the hooks before exploring the rest of the lower deck. There are stalls toward the stern filled with animals–two steers, four sheep, a ragged flock of chickens and three fat pigs. Charlotte looks at each and lingers on the soft, uncomprehending eyes of the steers that will become meals for the passengers and crew. Tucked under the bow in a wedge-shaped hold are the ship’s stores–burlap sacks of flour, sugar and grain, cases of biscuits, salt and limes. Charlotte and Pad walk back to midship, where a wide hatch is battened shut on the deck.
“What’s down there?” Charlotte asks a stocky sailor who is hurrying aft.
“Cargo, madam,” he says. “Plenty a’ cotton cloth and wool. That’s what makes ’em rich, madam, shippin’ the likes a’ that.”
My trunk is down there too, Charlotte thinks ruefully.
The young lad who’d caught her eye when they left the dock is friendly, puppyish and not too shy to tell her his name is Tommy Yates when she finds him exploring the lower deck.
“Me dad was the one who got me on board,” the boy confides gravely. “He brought me to the dock and hired me out to the captain. He told him I was sixteen, an’ I’m but thirteen.”
“Thirteen?” Charlotte looks at him closely. “Are you even that?”
“Oh yes, madam. Honest, I am.”
She had thought him no more than a scrawny eleven.
When he is not scrambling up the rigging at the captain’s orders or crawling through the hold below the sleeping quarters to fetch something the captain needs from the cargo, Tommy finds his way to Charlotte’s side. In the first week at sea, she heard about his fourteen brothers and sisters, the drink that made his father what he was and the mother who was so sickly she could hardly manage to stagger from her bed.
Charlotte shares her own story with him–putting a more varnished spin on her departure than is the case. She tells Tommy that she and Pad are married and that her father, General Taylor, doesn’t approve of the relationship so they decided to leave home for the West Indies and start a new life.
She entertains the winsome boy with details of the world she left behind, imitating her nanny’s priggish etiquette. “She insisted I sit like this all day long,” says Charlotte, perching herself on a bench and exaggerating the pose–her back ramrod straight, her legs bent at the knee and turned slightly sideways and her hands folded together in her lap. She makes him laugh when she describes her antics in the straitlaced household–refusing to marry the man her mother had chosen for her, looking contrite when her father admonished her, galloping around the estate on her horse and lingering at the stable with Pad. Tommy thinks it’s a blissful life she’s left, but even this boy can see the rebel in the woman he has befriended
From the Hardcover edition.
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