Small Mercies

Catalyst. Feb. 2020. 162p. Tr ISBN 9781946395160.
Gr 4 Up–In contemporary Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Mercy Adams lives in fear of a social worker appearing at her doorstep and taking her away from Aunt Flora and Aunt Mary, the two elderly sisters who have been her foster mothers since she was very young. To outsiders, she knows their life wouldn’t be considered “normal”—Aunt Mary never hesitates to write Mercy absurd excuses to get out of her sixth grade responsibilities (“she has a bone in her leg,” a cross country excuse reads), their ramshackle house is falling apart, and worst of all, Aunt Flora’s memory has started to fade due to Alzheimer’s. When a housing developer makes aggressive attempts to buy their house, Aunt Mary declines the offer and instead takes in a lodger, Mr. Singh, to raise some extra money. Mr. Singh tells Mercy stories about his “friend,” Mohandas (Gandhi), that teach her to appreciate the unforeseeable significance of small acts in building a better world. Mercy is a winning protagonist who is by turns anxious, observant, and brave. South Africa is represented in its diversity: Mercy is mixed race, her aunts are white, and neighbors, classmates, and community members are from a range of racial and cultural backgrounds. Short, episodic chapters in the book’s first half build to an emotionally compelling conclusion that is rich in insights about community, family, and social action.
VERDICT This novel has a gentle, timeless feel, complex secondary characters, and quirky humor. A heartfelt, human, and wise addition to middle grade shelves.

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