Jun 23 2014 5:30pm

First Look: Heather Gudenkauf’s Little Mercies (June 24, 2014)

Heather Gudenkauf
Little Mercies
Harlequin MIRA / June 24, 2014 / $15.95 print / $11.99 digital

Veteran social worker Ellen Moore has seen the worst side of humanity—the vilest acts one person can commit against another. She is a fiercely dedicated children's advocate and a devoted mother and wife. But one blistering summer day, a simple moment of distraction will have repercussions that Ellen could never have imagined, threatening to shatter everything she holds dear, and trapping her between the gears of the system she works for.

Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has been living with her well-meaning but irresponsible father since her mother left them, sleeping on friends' couches and moving in and out of cheap motels. When Jenny suddenly finds herself on her own, she is forced to survive with nothing but a few dollars and her street smarts. The last thing she wants is a social worker, but when Ellen's and Jenny's lives collide, little do they know just how much they can help one another.

Heather Gudenkauf writes compelling, affecting books. In the back of the book she talks a bit about her motivation for the story, and what she wanted to illustrate:

I think there are many time when we find ourselves hoping for the big miracles in life such as a cure to a horrible illness or picking the winning lottery numbers, but I truly believe it’s the small kindnesses—the little mercies—that really get us through the difficult times.

And that is what this book is filled with—small acts of compassion, thoughtfulness, and caring that ultimately change the course of two individual’s lives.

Jenny Briard’s father, Billy, can’t keep a job or a girlfriend. So she shouldn’t be surprised when he informs her that they are moving to Iowa. That night at the bus station, her father does what he always does—chats up to a pretty girl. Jenny is used to women coming in and out of her life:

Women loved her father. At least for a while anyway. He was almost move-star handsome, but not quite, which made people like him all the more. . . In the past six months a parade of woman had come in and out of their lives. There was the checkout girl at the grocery store that always slid a pack of gum into their bag for Jenny.

“My treat,” she said, not even looking at Jenny, keeping her smile brightly focused on Billy.

There was the bank teller, the lady who decorated cakes at the bakery and even the nurse at the emergency room, who spent more time chatting with Billy than attending to the three-inch gash that Jenny got when she ran into the metal frame of the opened screen door.

Her father is so busy talking to the woman that he gives Jenny the bus tickets and asks her to find them a seat. Jenny does what he asks, but then sees her father walk out of sight, with two angry men following him. Jenny is ready to get off the bus when she hears the sounds of sirens:

Immediately she slouched low in her seat. Her father hated the police and didn’t hesitate to share his distrust with Jenny.

“See the cops coming,” he would say, “go the other direction.”

“Why?” Jenny would probe.

He father would just head. “Best they don’t find you. You don’t want to end up in foster care again, do you?

Ten-year-old Jenny is at a loss of what to do, until she realizes that her bus route goes through Cedar City, the town where her grandmother lives. So she stays on the bus and gets off there. She’s not sure of how to find her grandmother, but she’s hungry and she sees her favorite restaurant, Happy Pancake. It is there that she meets a concerned waitress named Maudene:

“Please,” the woman implored, “let me help.”

Jenny’s stomach gave a sudden heave and she vomited into the street.

“Please, let me take you home or at the very least call someone for you.”

Miserably, Jenny clutched at her stomach and began to cry.

“What’s your name?” she asked gently.

“Jenny,” she wept.

“Jenny, just tell me who I can call and I will.” The woman reached out and placed the back of her hand against Jenny’s forehead. “You’re sick. I can’t just leave you here.”

While Maudene is trying to help Jenny, Maudene’s daughter Ellen and granddaughter, Avery, are experiencing their own crisis. Ellen’s job as a social worker is to makes sure that children in her care are safe, but she is paralyzed when something happens to her own daughter:

Jade leans over, tilts Avery’s head back and lift her chin. Oh, my God she’s not breathing, I realize as Jade presses her mouth over my daughter’s lips and pushes her own air into Avery’s lungs. . . Jade presses two fingers on Avery’s breastbone and pushes down in quick, purposeful thrusts. I should be doing this. Giving my daughter CPR, saving her life. This is something I know how to do automatically, without even thinking. Clear airway. Two breaths. Thirty compressions. Two more breaths. Place your ear against the child’s mouth. Listen for breathing. Can you see the rise and fall of the chest? Can you feel the tickle of breath against your check? Check for a pulse. Still not breathing? Still no pulse? Repeat. I know how to do this. Every social worker knows how to do this. It’s part of our training. But I just stand here, swaying on wobbly legs until a pair of hands steadies me. I do nothing. Nothing. It occurs to me that I am watching my daughter die. . .

Jade must have learned CPR in the parenting class she was required to take by the Department of Human Services, required by me to complete in order for her to regain custody of Anthony and I am so grateful. So indebted to this woman who was unable to care for her own child for a time. That his suffering has become my salvation.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I want you to be as mesmerized as I was. Little Mercies is not a romance, but it is a riveting story about parenthood—the good the bad and the ugly. It also celebrates the people in our lives who make a difference, and who help us carry the load with small acts of kindness.



Learn more or pre-order a copy of Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf, available June 24, 2014:

Buy at AmazonBuy at Barnes & Noble



Leigh Davis, blogger

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