A QUESTION OF MERCY by Elizabeth Cox
Publisher University of South Carolina Press, October 4, 2016
Finney, a young man who is mentally disabled, faces sterilization and
lobotomy in a state-supported asylum. When he is found dead in the French
Broad River of rural North Carolina, his teenaged stepsister, Jess, is
sought for questioning. Jess’s escape across four states leads into dark
territories of life-and-death moral choices where compassion and grace offer
faint illumination but few answers. A Question of Mercy, set in a
vivid landscape of the mid-twentieth-century South, is the fifth novel from
Robert Penn Warren Award–winning writer Elizabeth Cox. As she challenges
notions of individual responsibility against a backdrop of practices
governing treatment of the mentally disabled, she also stretches the breadth
of the human heart to love and to forgive.
Jess Booker, on the run and alone, leaves the comfort of her home near
Asheville, recklessly hitchhiking her way to a boarding house in tiny Lula,
Alabama, a perceived safe haven she once visited with her late mother.
Pursued by a mysterious car with a faded “I Like Ike” sticker, Jess is also
haunted by memories of her mother’s early death, her father’s distressing
marriage to Adam’s mother, the loving bond she was able to form with Adam
despite her initial resistance, and her boyfriend Sam’s troubling letters
from the thick of combat in the Korean War. In Lula, Jess finds a respite
among a curious surrogate family of fellow displaced outsiders, and there
she finds the strength to heed the call homeward.
Through her vibrant depictions of characters in crisis and of the lush,
natural landscapes of her southern settings, Cox brings to the fore the
moral, ethical, and seemingly unnatural decisions people face when caring
for society’s weakest members. A Question of Mercy recognizes the
countless ways people come to help one another and the poor choices they can
make because of love—choices that challenge the boundaries of human decency
and social justice but also choices that can defy what is legal in the
course of seeking what is right.
Jill McCorkle, a Dos Passos Prize–winning novelist and short story writer
and the author of Life after Life, provides a foreword to the novel.