Guns, Race, Abortion: Jennifer Haigh’s New Novel Humanizes Hot Topics

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Using a title taken from an Anne Sexton poem, she begins “Mercy Street” with Claudia, who is 43, lives in Boston and has a very stressful job. Claudia is not really the urban type. She was born in Maine to a 17-year-old boy who probably didn’t want her. The trash caught in the shag carpet of their trailer lives in his brain. “She still remembers the first time she heard the term white trash can. She was 9 or 10 years old, she was watching a stand-up on television, and she immediately understood that he was talking about people like her.

Credit…Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

“Mercy Street” opens on Ash Wednesday 2015. Claudia is at work answering phone calls from pregnant women at a health clinic near Boston Common, knowing that every call is a window into someone’s life. Outside, the peak protest season has just begun and will last until Lent. Most of the protesters are men. One will figure prominently in Haigh’s narrative, but not in any way.

Claudia lived several lives before that. His past seeps into the book partly through his reactions to callers and visitors. It is spurned by the privileged who can afford to erase unwanted pregnancies from their bodies, their career prospects and their memories. Likewise, drug addicts too wasted to care about near-viable fetuses also bring out his disgust. Women driven by fear – a mother of four who thinks her ex might kill her – unleashes her compassion. And she hates to hear the constant litany of “It was my fault.”

After hours, Haigh directs Claudia to a weed dealer named Timmy. In a book that’s by no means solemn and full of quirks, the ever stoned Timmy and his big plans and bigger TV screen serve as comic relief. Timmy doesn’t understand golf but watches it for its soothing tones: “the green lawns, the announcers talking quietly like a sleeping baby.” Claudia likes to light up with Timmy and just talk. She stuck layers of gentrification on her upbringing in the trailer with a mother who pushed her aside for countless foster children. Timmy’s ramshackle place, where he meets a parade of shoppers and broods about the impending legalization of marijuana, feels somehow like home.

Claudia, Timmy and all the other actors in the book – including, inevitably, a few characters from Bakerton – have one thing in common: they weren’t wanted. They were felt from birth. There are two ‘sisters’ and two ‘brothers’ who aren’t blood relatives but were reluctantly raised in the same homes – and both pairs are obsessed with women and what they stand for, be it either sex or reproduction. These people come from wildly different ends of the political spectrum, but they were all damaged early on in the same way. Claudia was smarter than most, but when she was targeted at 13 by her mother’s older boyfriend, she didn’t know what he wanted. Marry her or adopt her?

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