When the actions of a mentally challenged teenaged boy begin to frighten other children and alarm their parents, what should be done?
By the boy’s family?
By the state?
Is it time to institutionalize the boy? Are there medical procedures that can eliminate his offensive and dangerous conduct?
These questions and these situations can tear families and communities apart.
Award-winning poet and novelist Elizabeth Cox, formerly at Duke and more recently at Wofford College, deals with such challenges in her latest novel, “A Question of Mercy.”
Set in the North Carolina of the early 1950s, we learn the family’s side of this situation through the voice of Jess Booker, the teenage stepsister of Adam, who suffers from a disabling mental condition. Jess’s mother is dead. When her widowed father married Adam’s mother, Jess became Adam’s unwilling and uncomfortable caregiver. As the relationship develops, she warms to Adam and becomes his advocate, arguing against her stepmother’s determination to institutionalize him.
Both Jess and the stepmother know that the likely outcome for Adam in a state institution will be radical medical treatments including lobotomy and sterilization. Jess believes such treatments will destroy the Adam who has become important to her.
As Adam comes to understand what is in store for him in a state institution, he becomes desperately sad. After a walk together along the French Broad River, Adam disappears and Jess runs away. When Adam’s body is found downriver, the absent Jess becomes a murder suspect, and the novel’s story becomes, in part, a murder mystery.
But it also becomes several other stories.
Jess’s adventures as she makes her way from western North Carolina to a small town in Alabama could be a separate novel. On a months-long journey, she is a girl on the run, walking and hitchhiking along the French Broad and through forests and back roads of North Carolina and Georgia to Alabama. Hungry, dirty, wet, and tired, she steals food and clothes, sleeps on the ground and in barns, and resists threatened sexual assaults, all the while trailed by a mysterious man who drives a car with a mangled “I like Ike” bumper sticker that reads “ike Ike.”
Jess’s destination is Lula, Alabama. A man who was a dear friend of Jess’s dead mother lives in a boarding house there. As Jess settles in to a warm welcome from her mother’s friend and the other residents of the boarding house, another story begins. I should say other stories. After Jess moves in, the residents interact as if they were a part of a television series. There are wonderful characters: Jess’s mother’s friend, the boarding house owner, a retired professor, a struggling newspaperman, a beloved cook, and two little boys whose father has disappeared. The characters’ minor squabbles and romances show Jess their humanity, which shows again when all the adults bond together to keep Social Services from sending the little boys to an orphanage in Birmingham.
A brief romance between Jess and the newspaperman is a guide to yet another story. Before Jess ran away from North Carolina, she had fallen in love with a fireman, Sam, who then was called to fight in Korea. Sam is Jess’s first love. She treasures his letters and reads them over and over, even while on the run to Alabama. How will the brief fling with the newspaperman affect the romance with Sam? What impact will the terror of war have on Sam and Jess? The poignant answers to these questions bring a climax to this story.
How all these stories blend with Adam’s tragedy to make a novel, and how the murder mystery is solved are questions that can only be answered by reading the book. Thanks to Cox’s lovely writing, that task was for me a very pleasant one.