On the last day of school in 1999 Port Sabine, a fetal corpse is found in a dumpster near the high school. The discovery rocks the deeply religious oil refinery town, and every female student is viewed with suspicion. One of the girls embroiled in this mystery is Mercy Louis. A basketball star with stunning good looks and a virtuous reputation, she is the town’s golden girl. But behind her luminous exterior lurks a difficult personal life. After being abandoned by her mother, Charmaine, who is widely viewed as a junkie and a slut, she has been raised by her strict evangelical grandmother, who is desperate to keep Mercy from following in Charmaine’s footsteps.
Amid the witch hunt for Baby Doe’s mother, Mercy must deal with cryptic letters from the mother she has never met; a rift with her rebellious best friend, Annie; the overwhelming expectations of her grandmother and her coach; and a boy, Travis, who shakes the foundation of her beliefs. And at the periphery of everything is Illa Stark, the basketball team’s manager. A lonely wallflower who was forced to grow up too fast when a refinery explosion rendered her mother unable to walk, she is captivated by Mercy’s grace and talent.
After a life-altering summer, the tension culminates on the opening night of the basketball season, when Mercy collapses on the court and begins to display strange symptoms that the doctor can’t explain. Soon, other girls develop the same mysterious affliction, and panic spreads through the community.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen packs quite a punch. Although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked it up, it has become one of my favorite books of the year, so far. Here are five reasons why I loved it and want everyone to read it.
1. Deeply religious Southern oil refinery town. I haven’t read much Southern fiction, but it is becoming a real kryptonite. Port Sabine, a Southern Texas town near the Louisiana border is portrayed vividly, with its conservative values and fraught relationship with the refinery that both provides the town’s lifeblood and causes serious health issues for its workers.
2. Criticism of the patriarchy. As you might expect from such a conservative Southern religious community, the people of Port Sabine are not the most progressive when it comes to how they treat their women and girls. “Virtue” is valued above all — so much so that a mayoral candidate tries to improve his own reputation by hosting a “chastity ball” for his sexually active daughter, forcing her to don a white dress and promise to abstain from sex until she is married. That chastity balls are real things fill me with so much rage; the idea that a girl’s most important asset is her virginity offends me to my core — and not least because boys don’t face the same kind of expectations or scrutiny.
This quote, said by a character in reference to the police investigation into the death of Baby Doe and the town’s reaction to the case, hits the nail right on the head:
“Around here, you’d think being a girl was the fucking crime.”
3. Fantastic coming of age story. Being 17 is hard no matter what your personal circumstances are. But add an absent mother who finally wants contact, a grandmother who is more focused on the Rapture (Y2K fear, y’all!) than loving you, a first love that challenges everything you have been taught, a judgmental community, and the unique stress small-town athletic champions face, and you have a real doozy of a coming-of-age story.
4. Dual perspectives. The story is told from alternating perspectives. In addition to Mercy’s first-person narration, we also get third-person chapters from Illa’s perspective as she deals with taking care of her house-bound mother, pursues a photography competition, and keeps tabs of Mercy. Although she has taken a back seat in many discussions of this book, she is a really wonderful, fully realized character.
5. Notes of other fantastic books and movies. Like The Fever by Megan Abbott, this book has a mysterious condition that sweeps through a group of girls. And its portrayal of the challenges facing girls growing up in Southern towns reminded me of Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Finally, its takedown of slut-shaming called Mean Girls to mind.
“Such a funny thing, shame, that in the scramble to avoid it, you forget who has the right to shame you in the first place.”
I really loved The Unraveling of Mercy Louis and would highly recommend it to readers who love Southern coming-of-age stories with a touch of feminism.
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