The Unraveling of Mercy Louis won the 2016 Alex Award, given by the American Library Association “to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” The Kansas City Star also chose The Unraveling of Mercy Louis as its best book of 2015. Keija Parssinen has an impressive resume. She graduated cum laude from Princeton with a degree in English literature and received a certificate from the Program for the Study of Women and Gender. After receiving her MFA at the U of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she won a Michener-Copernicus award for her first novel, The Ruins of Us.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is Parssinen’s second novel, published in 2015. It has received a great deal of acclaim from the Kansas City Star, Lone Star Literary Life, the American Library Association, Missouri Life, and Brazos Bookstore. She has written for a number of other publications as well: Lonely Planet travel-writing anthologies, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Slice Magazine, Salon, Five Chapters, the New Delta Review, Marie Claire, This Land, and Off Assignment. Currently, Parssinen is the Director of Cedar Crest College’s Pan-European MFA program, as well as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tulsa.
Mercy Louis lives in Port Sabine, TX, an oil refinery town. The area depends upon the refinery for income. Despite the accidents and the awful smells that accompany the refinery, life goes on. An explosion that killed a number of workers and maimed others has left the town in turmoil, dependent upon the refinery with many people resenting the refinery and all it brings. Mercy is a bright spot at the high school for her basketball prowess. She gives the town a focus of pride in her abilities and strength as a player and all-around good girl, a strong contrast to her best friend Annie who is daughter to the rich refinery owner.
Early in the story, a newborn baby’s body is found in a dumpster at the convenience store across from the high school. The town buzzes about who might have left the baby there. Was the baby born alive or did it die after birth? Speculation runs through the town about who left the baby in the dumpster. Meanwhile, Mercy tries hard to concentrate on her skills as a basketball player hoping to land a scholarship that will take her out of Port Sabine. Jodi Martin, the girls’ basketball coach, pushes Mercy and the other girls hard to make them the best they can be, a reflection on her. She gives the girls meal plans to follow during the entire year, including summers and requires strength training as well. Mercy follows the rules to the letter until that fateful summer between her junior and senior years.
Mercy lives with Maw Maw, her maternal grandmother, and she has no knowledge of her mother, Charmaine except that Maw Maw has told Mercy that Charmaine did not want Mercy and chose drugs and other evils over her daughter. At school one day, Mercy receives a letter from her mother, but the letter arrives late and Mercy is not inclined to want to see Charmaine or even respond to the letter because Maw Maw has poisoned Mercy against her mom. The truth, revealed only at the end of the book, gives readers a much different picture of Charmaine than the one Maw Maw paints.
Maw Maw professes to be a seer who can predict the future. She is certain that Y2K will find everyone in Heaven or in Hell at the stroke of midnight. To that end, she admonishes Mercy to be ready, to be pure, and to be ever vigilant so that Mercy does not end up like her mother, pregnant and a drug addict.
Other families also harbor secrets, so almost everyone has something to hide. Illa, the manager of the girls’ basketball team, takes care of her mother who was injured in the refinery blast that also killed Illa’s father. Illa feels a strong connection to Mercy, a kind of hero worship, but Mercy can never see past Annie’s friendship to give Illa more than a glance now and then.
Parssinen tells the story in alternating chapters through Mercy’s eyes and through Illa’s eyes. Through the two of them, readers can fill in the gaps. Illa learns that her mother and Charmaine were high school best friends, but the two have lost touch until Charmaine starts sending letters to Meg, Illa’s mom, in hopes Meg will pass them along to Mercy. Instead, Meg reads the letters and hides them until Illa discovers them and tries to give them to Mercy. That action causes a deep rift between Mercy and Illa because Maw Maw has poisoned Mercy so against her mom that she does not even want the letters.
To complicate matters, Mercy and Annie have a falling out. They have been like twins, best friends all of their lives; now, they do not even speak to one another. Adding to the drama, Mercy falls in love with Travis, the first boy she’s ever allowed herself to even give a second glance because Maw Maw has drilled into her that all boys are evil and want only one thing. Mercy’s visits to Travis’s home show her a family such as she has never known. However, the relationship with Travis is fraught with danger and Mercy backs away from him, leaving him bewildered and alone.
Mercy looks forward to the last season of basketball and the prospect of a college scholarship to lift her out of Port Sabine. The summer before her senior year, however, Mercy starts experiencing strange movements in her arms and an inability to control her body as she has always been able to do. She hides the problems from everyone and trains all the harder, playing pick-up basketball with the boys in the evening at the park. Unfortunately, when basketball practice starts in earnest in the fall of her senior year, Mercy’s uncontrollable actions become known to everyone. In addition, other girls in the school begin to have similar symptoms, much like the girls in Salem during the height of the accusations against witches.
During the hysteria about witches in 1692, nearly two hundred people were accused of being witches. By the time the hysteria ended, nineteen people were sentenced to death. Historians agree that the witch hunts developed because of mass hysteria, but causes for the hysteria remain theories.
Five of the theories causing the mass hysteria, particularly among teenage girls include boredom, a strong belief in the occult, disputes, rivalries, and personal differences, cold weather theory, and ergot poisoning.
In Port Sabine, boredom could certainly have influenced the girls who suffered from the hysteria. The town is small, leaving few opportunities for activities and entertainment for the teens. The girls affected are all connected through the high school and their basketball team. Many of the girls’ parents strictly guarded them and limited what they could do. Girls, particularly, face severe restrictions. Note the stories that surround Lucille, the poor woman who sells her trinkets from a blanket on the sidewalk. The girls are ready to believe any story however fantastical about her. Mercy also focuses on the stories Maw Maw tells her, stories to scare Mercy into being a “good girl.”
The girls are rivals even though they are basketball teammates. Mercy is clearly the star, so the other girls are jealous of her even as much as they want their team to win. Also, the strong relationship between Mercy and Annie creates additional tension among the other girls. Annie’s father is the refinery owner, so Annie is rich, and she has always had a strong friendship with Mercy, making the other girls jealous.
Obviously, we can dismiss the cold weather theory as a possible cause for the mass hysteria in Port Sabine. However, the overarching refinery, its odors, and dangers could be substituted for the cold weather theory.
Finally, rye grains can become contaminated with ergot, a fungus. That’s another possible cause of the 1692 mass hysteria; those accusing others of being witches could have been having hallucinations caused by eating the contaminated grain. Again, the girls in Port Sabine are not eating contaminated rye, but the overhanging and significantly strong chemical smells coming from the refinery could be substituted for the ergot poisoning. The girls are already susceptible, so the strong odors contribute to their hysteria.
What do you think, readers?