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Mercy’s Birds

by Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman’s second YA novel (she’s the author of Promise Song) is the story of Mercy, a 15-year-old loner living with her mother and aunt in a working-class neighbourhood in what is likely Winnipeg. Mercy is old beyond her years, coping with a depressed mother, an alcoholic aunt, and the pending return of her aunt’s sexually predatory boyfriend. If this all weren’t enough, she’s also the main breadwinner in the family and has just started a new school.

To psychically protect herself, Mercy cuts off her alluring, golden locks and dyes what remains of her hair black. With this symbolic act, she hardens herself, but also cuts off human companionship. That is, until a friend comes along – her first ever. Through this unexpected friendship, Mercy learns to open up and eventually ask for the help she desperately needs.

Mercy’s Birds is deceptively interesting. It starts off awkwardly, with a heavy dose of overwrought metaphors and a narrative emphasis on Mercy’s fear of her aunt’s boyfriend. For the first few chapters, I thought I was headed into a formulaic tale about sexual abuse. Instead what resulted was a complex, gritty story of a young woman coming to emotional maturity.

Holeman’s depiction of Mercy’s inner life feels real, and many of the scenes are charged, while steering clear of melodrama. Even supporting characters, such as Mercy’s Italian-Canadian boss at the flower shop where she works and her fortune-telling (and often drunk) aunt, come alive fully. Holeman is adept at translating weighty emotional complexities into simple, honest language. Even words that are likely to be new to the average teenage reader are explained in a way that blends smoothly into the narrative.

I was touched by Mercy’s Birds and I think a lot of teenagers will be too.