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Fiction Small Town & Rural


by (author) Alissa York

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Dec 2003
Small Town & Rural, Historical, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2003
    List Price

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Award-winning author Alissa York’s first novel is a haunting and masterful exploration of how passions of the spirit and the flesh can overwhelm us, and even come to inhabit the ground beneath our feet. Divided into two parts, Mercy pairs a single year in the past with a single night in the present, as they unfold in the town of Mercy, Manitoba, and in the neighbouring black spruce bog.

In 1948, a dedicated priest named August Day arrives in Mercy to take over from Father Rock, who has passed away. The first service he is to perform in his new church is the marriage of Thomas Rose, the town butcher, to Mathilda Nickels, the orphaned niece of the church housekeeper.

Thomas Rose is a good man who waited years to express his love for Mathilda. And when Mathilda accepted his proposal, he was sure that their life together would bring them both joy, though in truth he knew little about his betrothed. Mathilda has not explored the world beyond the realm of her religious devotion, and approaches her wedding day with a mix of fear and dread. But when her eyes meet those of Father Day at the ceremony, Thomas seems to dissolve beside her and she feels physical passion for the first time in her life. As of that moment, August and Mathilda will only have eyes, and hearts, for each other.

Half a century later, another sort of preacher comes to Mercy—a womanizing widower who wants to develop the black spruce bog on the edge of town and build a religious camp. Reverend Carl Mann is fairly confident of success but worries about the well-publicized protests of a woman known as Bog Mary, who has lived her entire life in the heart of the bog. He heads off to confront her and ends up lost and hurt, but Mary uses her natural remedies and knowledge to heal not only his wounds but his broken spirit.

A dark yet compassionate novel, Mercy rivals the fiction debuts of Anne Michaels, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Alissa York brings to life a tale of misguided love and damaged souls with language of incredible clarity and intensity.

About the author

Alissa York has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Winnipeg with her husband, writer / filmmaker / publisher Clive Holden. In 1999 her short fiction won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. Later that year Arbeiter Ring published Alissa's first collection of stories, Any Given Power, which won the Mary Scorer Award for the Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher, and was short-listed for the Danuta Gleed Award. Film rights to three connected stories from the collection have been optioned by Buffalo Gal Pictures. In 2001, Alissa won the John Hirsch Award for the Most Promising Manitoba Writer. Her novel Effigy was nominated in 2007 for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Alissa York's profile page


  • Nominated, Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction
  • Nominated, McNally Robinson Book of the Year

Excerpt: Mercy (by (author) Alissa York)

THEN (June 1948 – June 1949)


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.

Editorial Reviews

"Mercy will likely draw comparisons to two other debut novels of recent years. While it has much in common with Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees and Gail Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure For Death By Lightning—a rural setting, a backdrop of both religion and violence, a vivid and compelling cast of characters—Mercy is by far the strongest of the three novels, riskier, more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding." —Vancouver Sun

"A debut that's pure magic. . . . [Mercy] is stunning in its emotive power and emotional resonance. York's prose is taut and finely honed; her themes and the characters and settings that propel them are far-reaching and profound. It's sensual, full of yearning and longing for the heat of love." —Hamilton Spectator

"Alissa York is perched on the edge of literary big time with the launch of her debut novel. An intelligent and largely riveting story . . . spectacular." —Winnipeg Free Press

"Alissa York is a writer to be reckoned with. . . . This is the type of book that makes one marvel. Each and every phrase, no matter how incongruous, creates an unforgettable image, and each and every image, no matter how bizarre, builds this tightly choreographed story to its near-impossible dual climax." —Edmonton Journal

"Mercy is story that lingers with you long after its pages end and will likely garner even more awards and accolades for its author." —Calgary Herald

"Past and present circle round in a series of cartwheels that York stage-manages to create an exquisitely rendered novel that is almost painful to read." —Quill & Quire
"York is emotionally unflinching, and her writing is sharp-edged and intense. She can depict both beauty and rot with equal felicity. . . . The novel ultimately ascends to a level of Gothic melodrama that thousands of Fall on Your Knees fans will no doubt adore. . . . Rewarding . . . a blinding flash of light, a flare gun in a darkening universe of lost souls." —Globe and Mail

"Bewitching." —Chatelaine

"Lean and poetic . . . potently seductive." —Now magazine
Praise for Any Given Power:
"Some events in life—loves, losses, injuries, dark discoveries—enter us by force and linger on as symbols that soothe or plague us in ways we barely understand. York has considered these mysteries and turned them into prose that quietly sings. The best of these stories support the note-by-note song with brilliant structure, hitting body and spirit together." —Globe and Mail

"[York's] prose is energetic, muscular and exciting . . . [she writes about] pain, cruelty, passion and redemption set against a beautifully observed and delicately realized natural world." —The Canadian Forum

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