The Unraveling of Mercy Louis
By Keija Parssinen
Harper: March 10, 2015
$25.99, 336 pages
Seventeen-year-old high school senior Mercy Louis is a star in her hometown of Port Sabine, Texas. She is the best basketball player in the school’s history and one of the best in the state. She is popular despite being a quiet and serious young lady with little social life. For, as much as she may be admired, everyone knows her story: her teenager mother, Charmaine Boudreaux, abandoned her and ended up a drug addict in Houston; her father is a ne’er do well named Witness Louis who has had nothing to do with her beyond her creation.
Mercy has been raised by her grandmother, Evelia Boudreaux, a dour, single-minded fundamentalist who has made it her mission to prevent Mercy from repeating the humiliating sins of her mother.
Mercy has been shaped by the dual (and dueling) visions of her grandmother and her ambitious basketball coach, Jodi Martin, who recognizes that Mercy is a once-in-a-lifetime player who can bring the coach, the school, and the town great acclaim while earning herself a Division I scholarship and the chance to escape the hothouse of Port Sabine, a ragged, oil refinery-dominated town on the Gulf Coast.
Mercy has been under their full-court pressure for so long that her unraveling is inevitable; the only questions are when and how. The Unraveling of Mercy Louis answers those questions in a probing and suspenseful story that has been described as a cross between Friday Night Lights and The Crucible.
The story is told through dual narratives: Mercy tells her story in 1st person, while basketball team manager and secret admirer Illa Stark narrates her chapters in a close 3rd person, giving us an inside and outside view of Mercy and her circumstances.
Illa is a short, quiet girl who loves to watch the girls play, admiring the skills she knows she will never possess. She virtually worships Mercy, who, besides being one of the best players in the state, is also disciplined, kind, humble, and physically striking with her black hair and blue eyes.
As Mercy begins her senior year in August 1999, she is haunted by her poor performance in the previous year’s state basketball semifinal and feeling the pressure to lead her team to the championship. At the same time, Evelia’s evangelical fervor has reached a fever pitch due to her belief that the Rapture is coming with the new millenium.
These complex characters and conflicts would be enough for one book. But Parssinen is not done turning up the heat in Port Sabine. A refinery explosion a few years earlier killed several employees and left Illa’s mother, Meg, with two permanently damaged legs and a deep depression. Mercy’s best friend, Annie, is the daughter of the calculating and politically ambitious refinery manager, Beau Putnam, a man who is willing to sacrifice his wife and daughter for power and prestige.
The catalyst that sets all these conflicts in motion is the discovery of an aborted fetus in a dumpster behind a local convenience store. The police and citizens are obsessed with determining who “murdered” the baby, and suspicions run rampant. Beau Putnam uses the situation to complain about the police investigation and lack of leadership in Port Sabine. Tensions from the refinery explosion and fears that the town’s major employer is polluting their air and water make Port Sabine’s residents even more fractious.
Then Mercy receives a short letter from her mother apologizing and asking to meet. Evelia has told Mercy nothing but horror stories about her sinful mother; not surprisingly, Mercy has no desire to meet this woman who has played no part in her life. Yet she can’t help but be curious about what kind of person she was, and is.
Under the relentless pressure to maintain good grades, guard her purity, and increase her athletic accomplishments, Mercy has no social life other than her friendship with the unpredictable and spoiled teammate, Annie. Despite Mercy’s religious upbringing and her coach’s warnings to avoid romantic entanglements, she is eventually won over by a musical free spirit named Travis, who offers her temporary relief from her tightly wound life.
The shadow of Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch hunts, The Crucible, looms over The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, giving a sense of additional gravitas to the search for the person who abandoned the baby. Parssinen has dropped lots of hints in the names of several characters: Beau Putnam, like the greedy landowner George Putnam in The Crucible, takes advantage of a local controversy to further his own ambitions. Annie Putnam was one of the girls in Salem who confessed to witchcraft. Mercy’s classmates Abby Williams and Marilee Warren are similarly named for key characters in Miller’s play, Abigail Williams and Merry Warren. And Mercy’s church is led by Pastor Parris, who is not so different from The Crucible’s fearful Reverend Parris.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis probes many timely issues: an abandoned fetus; an investigation centering on high school girls that results in widespread suspicions; a teen mother who years later wants to have a relationship with her daughter; a refinery that is the town’s economic engine yet constitutes an ominous presence; the role of religious faith as a source of inspiration, guidance, and control in a small, economically depressed town; and cynical local politics and power struggles.
At the same time, it also explores several timeless issues: a coming of age story involving a complex female friendship, a secret admirer, a first boyfriend, burgeoning sexuality, jealousy, and secrets long buried that are at last being uncovered.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is as sweltering and humid as a summer day in south Texas. The coiled tension is palpable, and the characters are compelling. We want Mercy to find her way through the obstacle course of her life. We hope that Illa will be able to develop a friendship with Mercy. We wonder what will happen to Evelia when the Rapture fails to take place. While one could argue that Evelia Boudreaux, Coach Martin, and Beau Putnam are stock characters, in Parssinen’s capable hands they are made fully human through their multiple and plausible motivations. Even the “bad guys” are mostly believable people.
The quality of Parssinen’s writing keeps The Unraveling of Mercy Louis from turning into an overstuffed melodrama. She keeps the two narratives moving and she weaves the various plotlines together adroitly. Parssinen does an especially impressive job of capturing a young woman’s yearning heart and blossoming desire, for the most part avoiding clichés and romance novel shortcuts. Clunky sentences stand out to me like a flashing neon sign, and I didn’t spot a single one in The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I suppose it’s possible I missed a few while I was being carried along by the novel’s propulsive plot.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis captures the adolescent experience of being pushed and pulled in several directions at once. Keija Parssinen reminds us that growing up is a uniquely fraught experience for young people just getting their emotional, intellectual, and psychological bearings in a complex and confusing world. Ultimately, many secrets are revealed about the adults in Mercy and Illa’s lives, which are variously shocking, disappointing, and reassuring. The result is a satisfying and literary Texas Gothic novel that will leave you pondering the many social, cultural, and personal issues it explores.