As the impending Supreme Court decision about the future of abortion reignites polarizing ideologies, Jennifer Haigh’s Mercy Street invites readers to see the issues through a human lens. A master storyteller, Haigh handles her characters with compassion whether they are bitter misogynists, drug dealers, white supremacists or protesters throwing rosary beads like stones at the women and girls who enter Boston’s Mercy Street clinic.
Through Claudia Birch’s eyes, a weary counselor at the clinic, we see what the protesters do not. She describes her clients’ lives as a “burning building with a fire on every floor.” Women and girls arrive terrified, usually poor, sometimes abused, often drug addicted. One man tells her. “I have no problem with abortion, assuming there’s a good reason.” She replies, “There’s always a reason,” she says. “Define good.”
Claudia grew up in a single-wide trailer, rural Maine’s “white trash,” named for the garbage bins overflowing with paper plates in their mobile park where nobody ever moves. She put herself through college, one of the few who moved. But her well-paying job writing a Q/A column for a women’s magazine falls pitifully short answering any of life’s real questions, such as how to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Her mom, an underpaid nurse’s aide at the county home, answered those questions by taking in foster kids.
When Claudia decides to use her social work degree to grapple with grittier questions, the kind found on Mercy Street, a panoply of characters collide. Her ex-husband who doesn’t understand how she can work at the clinic, her dating-app boyfriend of convenience, and her once-a-month weed-dealer dot her immediate world. But just beyond the front door of the clinic in “the most Catholic city in America” a man named Victor copes with his hatred of women by duping the tragically lonely Anthony into sending him photographs of women entering the clinic so he can “out” them. Nostalgic for the Catholic Church of his youth and hungry for community since an accident left him severely injured, Anthony obliges.
The Supreme Court decision may change the battle sites of abortion, but it won’t change the players. After reading Mercy Street, you’ll recognize them anywhere.