Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"The Shape of Mercy" by Susan Meissner: a great book about appearances and judgments

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner is about three women connected through time by a diary. Each woman had to face a choice, a choice that could alter her life forever. Each woman must face the standards and expectations of her time and make a life-altering decision. A decision that could bring great happiness or great sorrow.


The story opens with Lauren Dorough, a young college student at University of California, San Barbara. She grew up in a life of privilege that she is desperately trying to leave behind and prove that she can make it without the family money. She takes a job for Abigail Boyles, an 83-year old retired librarian. Abigail wants Lauren to transcribe the 17th century diary of her relative, Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem Witch Trials.


The Salem Witch Trials occurred between February 1692 – May 1693 in Salem Village (present day Danvers, Massachusetts) when a group of girls became ill and began accusing local villagers of witchcraft. In all, over 200 women and men would be accused. 19 men and women would be hanged, 1 man would be crushed to death and an unknown number of others would die in prison awaiting trial and/or execution. The mass hysteria caused by the accusations plays out in Mercy’s diary. The diary begins in January 1692. Mercy is a unique woman for her time. She can read and write. She writes “once upon a time” stories which is seen as unnatural for a woman and she keeps her stories hidden. The entries in the diary are weaved into the happenings of Lauren’s and Abigail’s lives.


There are great number of lessons in this book. Lessons in which the reader forced to confront their own judgments of others with the backdrop of one of America’s worse witch hunts. Mercy is judged a witch because she reads and writes stories. Lauren is judged a snob because she comes from money. Abigail is judged as a bitter old woman. Are these judgments correct? What evidence is there to prove or disprove these judgments? I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author took great care to get the details of the witch trials correct while tweaking some for dramatic effect. I enjoyed reading Lauren’s journey through the diary and the events in the diary help her see the faults in her life. Mercy’s story is heartbreaking. As I read, I knew her fate and yet I hope that she would get a happy ending. Unfortunately, like many of the Salem Witch Trial victims, she does not. This is the second book I’ve read by Ms. Meissner. And while the past connection with the present through an object is a theme she has carried on in many of her books. I enjoyed how she weaves the past with the present. How the past can still teach us and show our faults and possibly even offer solutions to repair these faults.


“We use the dumbest things to measure someone’s worth” –Lauren