To begin with, I definitely wouldn’t call historical fiction Caroline B. Cooney’s specialty. At all.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter¸Caroline B. Cooney, 2001.
She’s famous for one thing: writing thrillers and mysteries for kids too young to read James Patterson and Stephen King. I think everyone my age inhaled The Face on the Milk Carton and its million interminable sequels, and Emergency Room (which was like a novel about “nice white girl in the wrong neighbourhood” that had done a line of coke and gone way off the rails), and Flight #116 Is Down, which launched a thousand fears of flying. So no one will be surprised to learn that The Ransom of Mercy Carter reads way more like a thriller than an actual historical fiction novel.
Let’s compare to last week’s Standing in the Light. Now, where that was handled with a pretty light hand, Cooney doubles down on the “blood and horror” side of things. There’s a lot of religion, but there’s way, way, way more emphasis on Cooney’s two major wheelhouses: Family and Blood ‘n’ Gore. And I say that in the nicest possible way because I read a shit-ton of her books as a teenager and I have fond memories of my introduction to trash thriller fiction.
Really really weirdly, the first page has a setup with “PLACE,” “PEOPLE,” “ATMOSPHERE,” and “AT STAKE.” In case the readers weren’t smart enough to figure that out from context like in every other book, ever? Also weirdly, every chapter starts out with the date, location, and temperature. I’m so confused. Which I think was the opposite of what was intended. This is the kind of thing that really only works when you have really short chapters, because it’s really bizarre when the chapter wanders around from place to place, day after day, and daytime into nighttime.
I’m already digressing. Mercy Carter, the titular heroine, is eleven years old and lives in Deerfield, Massachusetts, a town with about three hundred residents where they’ve been under the threat of attack by Indians all winter. It’s 1704, and Britain and France are struggling over North America, and the Indians are deeply tangled up in the land struggles as well, and that’s pretty much all the background you need to know. Mercy has four brothers and a sister, and after her mother died a few years ago, she’s done a lot of the child care around the house. She and everyone else are petrified of the Indians, since children have been kidnapped by Indians out of Deerfield before, and now that it’s winter and everyone is living inside the stockade on top of each other, tempers are fraying.
We don’t waste any time getting into the action, because on page 10 the Indians arrive in Deerfield, coming over the walls of the stockade with the snowdrifts, and instantly things all go to shit. Mercy finds one on the stairs when her stepmother attempts to barricade them in, and he tells them all to go downstairs and leave the house. The soldiers who were staying on the ground floor are all dead, and the village is on fire—people everywhere screaming and houses burning and the Indians organizing everyone that’s left into a huge line. Ruth, an asthmatic girl about Mercy’s age, keeps screaming about traitors and savages, while Mercy gets stuck carrying her three-year-old sister Marah and another little boy, Daniel, who doesn’t have anyone else to look after him. And they’re marched north, to Canada, at the end of February, through the snow.
While this book is mostly about Mercy, there’s a number of subplots about the other captives, including Eben Nims, who is all proud of himself for rescuing his three little sisters by shoving them into the cellar until he realized that the Indians burned the village, including the house over his sisters, and instead he sentenced them to their deaths. Then there’s Ruth, who seems to mainly be in this book to be an antagonist and the voice of struggle, and Sally Burt, who’s pregnant and ready to give birth any minute, and Jemima, who can’t stop crying. Mercy is hauling the two toddlers and is last in the long line, and one of the Indians finally takes her sister Marah to give her a break. Then he disappears, and when he comes back he doesn’t have Marah any more, and that’s the last we hear of her. But like all of the violent deaths in Caroline Cooney’s books, there’s no depth to it, it’s just….”well, she’s dead.” It’s exactly like every other violent death that takes place in every other book and there’s no emotional resonance to it at all. I could buy the argument that Mercy is so traumatized by all the other death that there’s no room left for this one, but it’s just like every other Cooney book, so I don’t really think so.
The Indians give the captives food and clothing and allow them to pray and talk with each other, which helps morale a bit in the blistering pace they’re setting, walking to Canada in the snow. Mercy in particular is adopted by one man, Tannhahorens, and several of the others have Indians who keep an eye on them in particular. The further they go, the more Mercy and some of the others realize that the Indians are being remarkably considerate of them—allowing them to pray and socialize and giving them enough to eat and to wear. Jemima gets axed for refusing to go any further, but the rest of them go on and on, numb with cold and exhaustion. Ruth goes on yelling and yelling and yelling about how terrible the Indians are while the rest of them try to resolve themselves to their fate and learn a few Mohawk words.
The small children are having a bit easier time of it, since they’re less aware of the carnage, but Mercy and the teenagers are all equally miserable and torn between learning Mohawk words and trying to focus on ransom and eventual freedom. They realize that the Indians are planning on adopting the children for their own—ransoming the adults and keeping the children for their own. They split up the captives, sending Mercy’s younger brothers in three different directions, and Mercy’s uncle gives her the directive “You must remember.” It’s all very Meaningful. Mercy stays with Eben and Irritating Ruth and a few others, and this part just draaags and draaaaaaaaags and drags. This is a very weirdly-paced book—more than a third of it is spent on the long walk north, which lasts only a couple of weeks, and then the rest keeps going by leaps and bounds.
The other weird thing about this book is that the focus is mostly on Mercy, but it’s technically an omniscient narrator. But it drops into narrating other people’s thoughts just often enough to be weird. Randomly, we pop into Ruth’s thoughts when she pushes one of the Indians over a cliff, and then rescues him. It’s interesting. But this is the only place in the book we get to get Ruth’s own point of view, and nowhere else! It’s just a strange way to arrange things. Anyway, they arrive in Deerfield, which is in French territory and full of French soldiers and priests, and Mercy is taken away by a couple of adult women who take her to their home.
The woman who takes her in looks after her, with salve and food and everything else you’d want after walking 300 miles in February, and Mercy begins to learn her way around the village. It’s on the St. Lawrence river, close enough to Montreal to be able to go for the day, and there’s quite a bit of really awkwardly-written prose about it, too. “In canoes that held ten men, the Indians began coming as soon as the ice broke, bringing thousands of beaver pelts. Home they went, loaded with firearms and ammunition, brass and copper, jewelry and dresses for their wives, their paddles slicing vigorously through the water. But that was the river and the city of Montreal.” Seriously? A good editing would not have gone amiss here! It’s a book for kids, not idiots.
Mercy and the others gradually learn more Mohawk as the spring wears on and there’s various celebrations, etc., but there isn’t a lot of actual interesting material until Ruth comes back from a short trip to Montreal, and informs Mercy that there’s an important prisoner whom the French might be persuaded to buy back with all the Deerfield captives. But nothing happens for months and months, and in the meantime Mercy goes along with her adoptive mother, learning Mohawk and how to weave baskets and cure skins and Ruth goes on berating her and yelling at everyone she can. Mercy’s adoptive cousin one day finally coaxes her in the water to teach her to swim, and they’re splashing around having a great time when two Frenchmen and Mr. Williams, the old minister of Deerfield, turn up. Mercy flings herself on him, begging for information about her brothers and her family, and Mr. Williams peels her off of him with a look of violent disgust and tells her that her parents would be “weeping” to see her now. Harsh, buddy. He’s really only interested in hearing about his seven-year-old daughter, Eunice, who has almost forgotten her English family and is perfectly happy with her Indian family and spending the summer running outside and playing. Mr. Williams leaves without hearing anything about his daughter, and is basically useless in every way.
In the fall, Mercy’s family takes her to Montreal, and while she’s there she sees her cousin Mary, who’s been adopted by a very wealthy French family who try to buy Mercy off her family, but they refuse. They trade for some things they need and return back to Kahnewake, and they don’t return to Montreal until November, on a big trip with lots of others. They bring Eunice, Mr. Williams’ daughter, and they walk right past him and he doesn’t recognize his own daughter—she’s so thoroughly Mohawk that he doesn’t recognize her at all. And while she’s there, Mercy realizes what her father’s name means—Tannhahorens means He Splits The Door, that at some point he had distinguished himself attacking an English village. Mercy has a terrible attack of guilt and fear, and begins to seriously consider escaping. Her mother allows her to go to Montreal by herself (well, with another family), and she trades for a long gray English cloak and takes the Indian dressings out of her hair, and goes down to the wharf.
She asks a sailor if she can sail with his ship back to France, and he starts leering at her (gross, she’s eleven) and tries to bring her onto the ship. But Tannhahorens shows up, just in the nick of time, to rescue her from a really, really gross encounter with really, really gross sailors, and brings her home without ever mentioning anything about it or accusing her of running away or anything. And for the rest of the fall Mercy is grateful for her family and their cozy home, and her mother teaches her to weave better in preparation for her cousin’s wedding. But the men go on a hunting trip, and Tannhahorens is killed by a bear along with two other men. Mercy’s mother helps her to blacken her face in the Mohawk mourning tradition, and Ruth flips the fuck out and drags Mercy down to the river to wash her by force. Days after that, Ruth is sold to French nuns—because, as Ruth’s would-be adoptive father tells her, she wouldn’t let Mercy mourn her father properly.
The following May, Mercy attends an adoption ceremony in a nearby village for a boy a little older than she is. There’s a big celebration, and Mercy sees Eben there, who’s been adopted as well, and Eben tells her about her brothers, who have both been adopted as well (two Indian, one French). On their return, the men immediately prepare to go on a year-long hunting trip to the west and Mercy’s mother tells her they’ll be going to pick berries and gone for weeks. But just after the men leave and before Mercy and her mother go, ransom finally arrives in their village. The French officers ask for the children back, and the deacon pleads for the return of his children and the others.
Mercy says nothing, doesn’t speak up, and doesn’t go anywhere near the ransomers. She goes home with her mother and stays there forever.
RatingL B-. Hmm. Slightly better than average, but too many problems to be really good. The pacing is strange and as is the case with lots of Cooney’s books, the major dramas and deaths are either glossed over or violently explicit, but neither seem to have great impact. It’s just not fantastically written, which is weird, because Cooney is perfectly competent at writing preteen thrillers. But this is not a thriller, at least not in any real way, and so instead there’s not a lot of emotional depth there. There are a few parts that really do resonate—Mercy’s fear of the French sailors, her sense of learning the difference between forgiveness and forgetting, the end when she decides to stay with her Mohawk family—but those parts just don’t really land when the rest of it is so uneven. The story, though, is really interesting, and pulls you along despite the weird pacing and everything else. The story is interesting enough to make up for some of the deficiencies. However, to me, there really wasn’t enough distinction between Mercy’s terror of the Indians and her sliding into their ways, and while I understand what Cooney is going for in illustrating how quickly it can happen, and the book isn’t really long enough to go super in-depth, I think there could have been more, somehow. It slipped there. All in all: certainly not bad, but not good enough to really be above average.