Ann Tatlock has done it again.
“Sweet Mercy” was part of my ‘library loot’ from last week. Finding it in the new book section (I see it was published in 2013), I grabbed it because I remembered liking Ann Tatlock’s novels in the past (more about Ann Tatlock in future posts!)
When I had time to pick it up I saw it was a novel set during the Prohibition era in Ohio and Minnesota. Not having read Prohibition stuff before, I wasn’t sure I would find it that interesting. However once I made my way through the initial chapters (which I have to admit were a bit of a slow-ride for me), I was hooked.
Eve’s father is out of a job, like many others in the early 1930’s, and they move to her uncle’s home in Ohio. Uncle Cyrus owns a hotel, and Eve and her parents, in return for free room and board, become part of a hotel staff.
Like many families, Eve’s parents are struggling with finding ways to make ends meet and maintain some vestige of self-respect in a time when very few are well-off or even able to find employment steadily. Complicating the mix are the laws against buying or purchasing liquor. The author tells us Prohibition had already been in effect for ten years by 1930, but the rest of the novel relates how this law, although with the best intent from the start, complicated lives and even led to concealment, murder, and illegal trafficking.
Another complication in the story is Eve, seventeen, and how she adjusts to living in a new place, finding new friends (and discovering that some friendships last and some don’t), starting a new job, handling the relationship of a distant older sister… and then suddenly stumbling upon some hidden stashes of liquor. Eve also befriends a ‘drifter’ and has compassion on him and others in his situation, although Eve’s character has a believable mix of struggling with envy, loneliness, and self-condemnation.
“I want to take some food to the people in the shantytown. Can I?”
“You want to feed the people in the shantytown?”
“Yes, they need food more than anything.”
Eve does a lot of growing up in the novel and encounters the challenges of making adult decisions in a world that is no longer black and white. What about those who are smuggling liquor in order to feed their families? or pay the medical bills? how do we treat those who look differently than we do? what if someone who is physically challenged and looks different, is a relative, do we ignore them… or befriend them?
“But that’s the point! People shouldn’t be drinking anything at all. Aren’t there any Prohibition agents around here?”
“Of course not. There aren’t enough agents for the big cities, let alone a litle Podunk town like Mercy. Anyway, it’s a losing battle. There’s stills all over the county. Too many to count.”
“But Prohibition is the law!… I’ve seen it,” I said. “I’ve seen what it does to people. But folks keep on drinking because other people, terrible people, keep on making illegal liquor and selling it.”
“Now hold on just one minute there, St. Eve,” Jones spat out …
“I’d wager those two men who just went by aren’t terrible people. I’d wager they’re not bad people at all. They’re just a couple of men trying to feed their families, and they got no other way to do it except to sell spirits to people who want an occasional drink.”
Eve finds that making decisions and keeping secrets, even among your own family, are much harder than she ever dreamed. The ending has some surprises and I sure didn’t see them coming. Although they might be a little dramatic compared to the rest of the book, I think they do fit the story.
“I stood tapping my foot, my hands behind my back. I didn’t want to leave the island to go back to St. Paul, bu neither did I want to stay. All I knew for sure was there wasn’t a place in the world that matched my dreams. For as long as I lived I would never stop pining for Paradise, but the gates had been shut and bolted long before I was born. I knew that now. The heartsickness of life outside of Eden was everyone’s lot, including mine.”
I did find out some information about Al Capone that I hadn’t ever known before (or even considered) and now am going to do some research of my own to see what I can discover about this time period that I am woefully ignorant of!
If you like historical fiction, you will want to give “Sweet Mercy” a try.