'A time of war, and a time of peace'

In this award-winning Canadian novel, a pacifist and his family are surrounded by a host of enemies

I've thought of no way to respond to people who tell me, "You know, I don't really read fiction anymore." It's never said as a confession of some shameful shortcoming (which, of course, it is). It's delivered with a distracted air of superiority, as though I've arrived carrying a stick of cotton candy, and they announce, "Oh, I don't really go to the circus anymore."

Of course, these are not carnival times we're living in. Books about military strategy, politics, history, and biography offer crucial perspective on the events unfolding. But when President Bush sets out on a crusade called "Infinite Justice" - quickly renamed "Enduring Freedom" - to "rid the world of evil-doers," that's an invocation for stories and the moral wisdom only stories can provide.

"Mercy Among the Children," winner of the Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious literary award, is a stunning novel by David Adams Richards. It has nothing to do with international conflict, but a nation at war should stare into its flame.

Not since Thomas Hardy has an author burned characters in a furnace of such moral intensity. There's light here for anyone who can stand the considerable heat he generates.

The story of Sydney Henderson is told by his son, Lyle, in a single 10-hour testimony of agony and forgiveness. Sydney was raised and beaten by his father in a New Brunswick mill town. They lived in a house built of plywood and tar paper, unimaginably disconnected from the modern world.

At the age of 12, when he could have followed his peers into a life of petty crime, Sydney made a decision that directed his life up a path of heroic tragedy.

He and another boy were shoveling snow from the church roof. In a scuffle over a sandwich, Sydney pushed his friend, causing him to fall 50 feet onto the ground. During the sickening stillness that followed, Sydney swore to God that if the boy lived, he would never raise his hand or his voice to another soul.

"The boy stood up, wiped his face, laughed at him, and walked away." And Sydney never broke his promise to God. In fact, as the years passed, and he read more widely, he became more deeply convinced "that no one can do an injury to you without doing an injury to themselves."

That code is viciously tested in the years ahead. Pegged early as a troublemaker for his father's crimes, Sydney trudges through a storm of prejudice and jealousy. Though he possesses so little, though he treats everyone kindly, though he asks nothing from the world but to let him live in peace with his wife, his purity enrages the people around him. None more so than Mat Pit, a backwoods Iago drawn with revolting precision.

Taking advantage of Sydney's principles, Mat and his cronies make him the butt of their jokes and the scapegoat for their crimes. Finally, in a scheme thick with greed and stupidity, they frame Sydney for an act of sabotage, theft, sexual abuse, and murder.

The town turns more violent against him and his family, but through it all, Sydney refuses to defend himself, remaining a man of "gentle sorrow."

"Son," he explains to Lyle, "people have treated me unfair most of my life. To beg a truth in front of them is unconscionable, because the truth gives them a respect they might not deserve."

Clinging to this questionable wisdom, Sydney treats his enemies only with kindness and compassion, even as his family starves and endures relentless abuse.

"The problem today is between two groups of people," he tells his wife calmly. "One group believes the world must change.... There is a second group that says that in a man's heart is the only truth that matters."

To Lyle, this passivity is madness. His father's compassion and patience are suicidal. As he gets older, his fury grows, until finally he strikes back against the host of enemies who have ravaged their sweet family. But in the process, he fulfills his father's warning, debasing himself, hardening his heart, and losing the precious things he wanted most to protect.

As narrator, Lyle peers into the heart of wicked men's hopes and fears, imagining with startling sympathy those parts of the story he couldn't know directly. At times, disasters and betrayals rain down in an unbearable torrent, as the mill town comes alive in all its tangled feuds and alliances.

From the dreary lives of these people, Richards constructs a profoundly moving tragedy about the smoldering rage of poverty and the extraordinary cost of principled peace.

Lyle's tale is finally a testament to his love for his father and his realization that real madness lies in the violent response to injustice that only breeds animosity.

Told with racing suspense and a style that swings between gritty realism and Old Testament myth, "Mercy Among the Children" is a bitter antidote to the proud slogans of war between neighbors or nations. Here is the reason to read fiction.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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