Summary and book reviews of A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox

A Question of Mercy

A Novel

by Elizabeth Cox

A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox
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  • Published:
    Oct 2016, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky

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About this Book

Book Summary

Adam Finney, a young man who is mentally disabled, faces sterilization and lobotomy in a state-supported asylum. When he is found dead in the French Broad River of rural North Carolina, his teenaged stepsister, Jess, is sought for questioning by their family and the police.

Jess's odyssey of escape across four states leads into dark territories of life-and-death moral choices where compassion and grace offer faint illumination but few answers. A Question of Mercy, set in a vivid landscape of the mid-twentieth-century South, is the fifth novel from Robert Penn Warren Award–winning writer Elizabeth Cox. As she challenges notions of individual freedom and responsibility against a backdrop of questionable practices governing treatment of the mentally disabled, she also stretches the breadth and limitations of the human heart to love and to forgive.

Jess Booker, on the run and alone, leaves the comfort of her home near Asheville, recklessly trekking through woods and hitchhiking her way to a boarding house in tiny Lula, Alabama, a perceived safe haven she once visited with her late mother. Pursued by a mysterious car with a faded "I Like Ike" sticker, Jess is also haunted by memories of her mother's early death, her father's distressing marriage to Adam's mother, the loving bond she was able to form with Adam despite her initial resistance, and her boyfriend Sam's troubling letters from the thick of combat in the Korean War. In Lula, Jess finds, if only briefly, a respite among a curious surrogate family of fellow displaced outsiders banded together under one roof, and there she finds the strength to heed the call homeward to face the questions she cannot answer about her stepbrother's death.

Through her vibrant depictions of characters in crisis and of the lush, natural landscapes of her southern settings, Cox brings to the fore the moral, ethical, and seemingly unnatural decisions people face when caring for society's weakest members. Grappling with the powerful bonds of love and family, A Question of Mercy recognizes the countless ways people come to help one another and the poor choices they can make because of love?choices that challenge the boundaries of human decency and social justice but also choices that can defy what is legal in the course of seeking what is right.

Chapter 7

On the day Adam was born, Calder Finney passed out cigars like a carnival barker. He bragged to everybody that Adam weighed eight pounds, four ounces. He told complete strangers.

Clementine had lost her first baby (also a boy) when the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck of the fetus. The baby died only a few minutes after birth; but the birth of Adam was long and arduous until, finally, the doctor used forceps to pull him out and Adam's head, for a few days, was misshapen. Nobody mentioned brain damage at the time.

Adam was a beautiful child, with long lashes and a mop of dark hair. During those early years, Calder took him everywhere; but as Adam's lack of progression grew evident, Clementine took him back to the clinic where he was born.

A doctor suggested that Adam be tested and have some X-rays. Adam was three. They stayed several days in a motel, and both Clementine and Calder went with Adam to everything, pretending it was all a kind of game. On the third ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. A disturbing moral choice lies at the center of this novel. How did you respond to that choice? Would you have made that same choice, or a different one? What would have happened if that choice had not been made? How do you think the choice affected (and will always affect) Jess Booker?
  2. How does the Korean War serve as a backdrop for this novel? What do you learn from the letters that Sam writes to Jess? How would you compare Sam's experience in the war to Jess's experience?
  3. What does Calder Finney add to the ongoing story? How is he central to the novel?
  4. How do you understand Adam through the "sensory" sections which focus on his experience of the world?
  5. Describe the relationship between Edward Booker and Clementine Finney?
  6. ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This is a solemn, sad, achingly beautiful mystery. Like many gifted Southern writers, Cox worships at the altar of words. She knows the importance of their potential storytelling prowess, and not just in their meaning, but also in the way their sounds clearly announce their arrival and how pace can be set with them.   (Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky).

Full Review Members Only (421 words).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Cox resists the easy ending and fills her novel with emotional and moral conundrums.

Booklist

Starred Review. A powerful and evocative tale of a family grappling with a cognitive disorder in a hostile time and place.

Author Blurb Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
Elizabeth Cox's stunning new novel, A Question of Mercy, is steeped in Faulknerian virtues: love, honor, compassion, sacrifice. But Cox's riveting narrative is utterly original, a tale spun of wishes and sorrows that only these characters - the teenaged runaway, Jess Booker, her mentally handicapped step-brother, Adam, and their parents - can bear.

Author Blurb Robert Morgan, author of Chasing the North Star
"With echoes of The Sound and the Fury, this novel is a thrilling story of compassion and adventure, of a desperate journey in quest of home and family. Like all great stories, it concerns a conflict of loyalties, not good versus evil, but one good versus another, heart versus the laws of society. It is also a mystery, a narrative of haunting secrets, told in a polyphony of viewpoints, and a celebration of unconditional love.

Author Blurb Ron Rash, author of Above the Waterfall
A Question of Mercy presents an unflinching view of mental-health treatment in 1950s America, but in Jess, the novel's heroine, Elizabeth Cox has created a character whose courage and humanity remind us that there are always individuals who will fight injustice. This superb novel further confirms that Cox is one of our most profound and gifted novelist.

Author Blurb Tim Gautreaux, author of Signals: New and Selected Stories
A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox is a tightly written story of the emotional links between a teen-aged girl and her mentally challenged stepbrother. With elements of a mystery and a cast of sympathetic characters the book is a rare and touching look at the fate of one family's struggle with a tragic family member.

Author Blurb Lee Smith, author of The Last Girls
Elizabeth Cox writes straight from the gut with passion and compassion, but her characters are carefully wrought and her artful structure creates gathering suspense until the very end. A Question of Mercy is Cox's finest novel yet, and one of the finest I have ever read. This beautiful novel rests in the heart long after the final page.

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Beyond the Book

Dorothea Dix: Passionate Advocate for the Mentally Ill

Dorothea DixOne of the main themes in A Question of Mercy is mental illness. And if you search for information on its history in the United States, the name Dorothea Dix keeps appearing.

In 1802, Dorothea Dix was born into a reportedly unhappy home in Hampden, Maine. Her parents were neglectful alcoholics: her mother was incapacitated by severe bouts of depression, and her father, a Methodist preacher, was frequently away, though he did teach his daughter how to read and write. Dorothea, who was the oldest of three children, essentially ran the household and took care of her family.

When she was 12, Dorothea moved in with a wealthy grandmother in Boston, who saw her interest in education and encouraged her to pursue it. When she was nineteen, she...

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