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 the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Author Wayne Johnston recounts hearing Richards read in 1983 and being struck by his unqualified love for every one of his characters, even though “it was not then fashionable to love your characters”. Pottersfield Portfolio editor Tony Tremblay calls Richards the most misunderstood Canadian writer of the century, and a “great moralist”, comparing him to Morley Callaghan, Kafka and Melville.
As a boy, Sydney Henderson thinks he has killed Connie Devlin when he pushes him from a roof for stealing his sandwich. He vows to God he will never again harm another if Connie survives. Connie walks away, laughing, and Sydney embarks upon a life of self-immolating goodness. In spite of having educated himself with such classics as Tolstoy and Marcus Aurelius, he is not taken seriously enough to enter university because of his background of dire poverty and abuse, which leads everyone to expect the worst of him. His saintly generosity of spirit is treated with suspicion and contempt, especially when he manages to win the love of beautiful Elly. Unwilling to harm another in thought or deed, or to defend himself against false accusations, he is exploited and tormented by others in this rural community, and finally implicated in the death of a 19-year-old boy.
Lyle Henderson knows his father is innocent, but is angry that the family has been ridiculed for years, and that his mother and sister suffer for it. He feels betrayed by his father’s passivity in the face of one blow after another, and unable to accept his belief in long-term salvation. Unlike his father, he cannot believe that evil will be punished in the end. While his father turns the other cheek, Lyle decides the right way is in fighting, and embarks on a morally empty life of stealing, drinking and violence.
A compassionate, powerful story of humanity confronting inhumanity, it is a culmination of Richards’ last seven books, beginning with Road to the Stilt House. It takes place in New Brunswick’s Miramichi Valley, like all of his novels so far, which has led some urban critics to misjudge his work as regional — a criticism leveled at Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Emily Bronte in their own day. Like his literary heroes, Richards aims to evoke universal human struggles through his depiction of the events of a small, rural place, where one person’s actions impact inevitably on others in a tragic web of interconnectedness. The setting is extremely important in Richards’ work, “because the characters come from the soil”; but as British Columbia author Jack Hodgins once told Richards, “every character you talk about is a character I've met here in Campbell River”.
David Adams Richards was born in 1950 in Newcastle, New Brunswick, the third of six children in a working-class family. Though he didn’t grow up as poor as Lyle, he knew something about feeling different in a rural community, having a “townie” father who owned a movie theatre and suffered from narcolepsy. He found his calling at the age of fourteen, after reading Oliver Twist, and embarked on a life of extraordinary purpose, which he says didn’t help the family finances: "Sometimes…I thought it would be better if I were a plumber, but I wouldn’t be very good."
He studied literature at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, and while working on a second novel he attended an informal weekly writers workshop, known as the Ice House Gang for the converted storage room where they met. There he received encouragement from established writers including the late Alden Nowlan, whom he names as an important influence along with Faulkner, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Emily Bronte. He published a book of poetry, Small Heroics, in the New Brunswick Chapbooks Series in 1972. When the first five chapters of The Coming of Winter won the Norma Epstein Prize for Creative Writing in 1973, he left university three credits short of his degree to write full-time; the book was published the following year, and translated into Russian.
He and his wife Peggy, who had met at 17 and married at 21, spent several years travelling in Canada, Australia and Europe (they particularly loved Spain), where he found he could write about the Miramichi he loved regardless of where he lived. Gradually, he took postings as writer-in-residence at universities in New Brunswick, Ottawa, Alberta, and Virginia. In 1997, they moved to Toronto, where they now live with their two young sons, John Thomas and Anton, and their dog Roo. Living in Toronto where Peggy has family allows the rest of the family to live a normal life when Richards is absorbed in his work and writing late at night.
Though Richards has won or been nominated for almost every award for which he's been eligible, one of only three writers to win both fiction and non-fiction categories of the Governor General’s Award, his writing was often criticized for being too bleak or too regional, and it was years before he made money. He laughs at the sales of his early work: “For a long while if I sold 200 books, I’d be saying: Oh, great! And, you know, a $50 advance! That's great. I only worked three years, I don't know if I can spend $50.”
His screenwriting career was launched in 1987 with the premiere of Tuesday, Wednesday. The screen play for Small Gifts, a Christmas special first aired on the CBC in 1994, received international acclaim at the New York Film Festival and won him his first Gemini; he won his second for the screen adaptation of For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. He continues to adapt his own work for the screen.
As he documented in a passionate and humorous meditation, Lines on the Water, he loves fly-fishing on the Miramichi river. No longer a resident, he was recently made an honorary Miramichier by the people of New Brunswick so he could get a fishing licence. He has also written a non-fiction book on the place of hockey in the Canadian soul, and is working on a hunting book, though hasn’t hunted big game for several years.
His fiction shows his deep interest in rural men and women, who are “extremely condescended to and misunderstood so much of the time”. Characters like Cynthia and Mat Pit and Leo McVicer he sees as brilliant and strong, and not particularly unusual in a rural environment. He remembers people who were “reading the classics when they were 11-years-old and lived in a dirt shack”, like Sydney Henderson.
Hand in hand with this goes a fascination with power, whether economic or intellectual, and its capacity for corruption. He recalls his university years during the Vietnam War, when “power was the main focus of the people”, and seeing friends use the peace movement for their own gain. “I saw how lives were bullied and humiliated by this… And Peggy and I became outcasts because I refused to participate... I thought that if power is so easily attained and misused by people who say they're for peace then there must be something fundamentally wrong with it… I'm not saying these people are good or bad, I'm just saying it's a human failing.”
He admires writers who “leave a lot unsaid”, and tries to put that quality into his own work now, having pared down his technique. His short stories and articles have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, and he has two unpublished plays, The Dungarvan Whooper and Water Carriers, Bones and Earls: the Life of François Villon, and one unpublished novel, Donna. His literary papers were acquired in 1994 by the University of New Brunswick.
"Richards is a painfully sharp observer, who possesses one of the most distinct and compelling voices in contemporary literature."
—The Toronto Star
"Richards has a wonderful ear for the cadence of the language, and his compassion for his poorest characters' misery is infectious — the best of Richards' work is dark in tone, both harshly realistic and lyrically sympathetic to the most disadvantaged members of society."
—The Globe and Mail
"At its best, Richards' work has a touch of greatness, yielding up reminders, sharp as wood smoke on an autumn evening, of both the pity and the glory of being human."
"His voice is one of the most powerful and necessary to be found in Canadian fiction."
"Wit and acuity mark out this Canadian writer of unaffected, unsentimental integrity."
—The Observer (U.K.)
"Mercy Among the Children is a major novel precisely because it disavows concern for the structure of things in any one place and time in favour of the structure of things for all places and times."
—The Globe and Mail
"David Adams Richards is perhaps the greatest Canadian writer alive ... Although Mercy Among the Children is unrelentingly tragic, as with most great tragedies the undertone is one of boundless hope."
"In its depth of feeling and fierce drive, Mercy Among the Children makes even the best of contemporary novels seem forced and pallid."
—The Toronto Star
"Mercy Among the Children explores major issues with passion and high seriousness. It aims for the heart, not the head. If you give yourself to the experience of reading it, it will reward you."
"A wrenching, soaring read ... It compels the reader to ponder the cruelty and grace of our relationships with each other and with an invisible unknowable God."
—The Calgary Herald
"Mercy Among the Children is a masterpiece."
"With Mercy Among the Children, David Adams Richards assures his place among the CanLit canon as one of this country’s greatest authors. Unrelenting, bleak and grim, the novel delivers its story with the force of an old testament prophet. Richards’s voice is consistently powerful as he relates this heartbreaking tale of generational poverty and abuse."
—The Edmonton Journal
"Mercy Among the Children is a major novel precisely because it disavows concern for the structure of things in any one place and time in favour of the structure of things for all places nad times. Literary fashions be damned; her is a fictional universe, fiercely imagined and brilliantly rendered, and everyone is welcome into it."
—The Globe and Mail (Charles Foran)
"…Richards makes a concentrated commitment to his plot and to his characters, who carry the book upward. It is passionately informed with his love and hate. He has a visceral belief in his story, and he never relents. His knowledge of the mind of evil is impressive."
"It’s time to declare David Adams Richards Canada’s greatest living writer. The reason for this assertion is simple: Of all the country’s best writers he is the one who has steadfastly set out to do what all great writers do — define what it is to be human. And he has done this through a voice uniquely his own, influenced by neither literary taste nor reader fashion….His latest novel Mercy Among the Children is not only his most ambitious, it’s as close to a masterpiece as he has yet written."
—Kitchener- Waterloo Record