The community of St. Jude in Fitzpatrick’s second novel is like most outport communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is defined by family name, gossip and the making of secrets. Mercy of St. Jude is a story that spans decades and uses sexual assault, secrecy, and Catholicism as a backdrop. Fitzpatrick’s characters are a diverse group but they are connected through their regional, familial and religious affiliations as well as a small town’s worth of secrets, and these characters, and all their bizarre and tangly stories, are like the characters we know in our own lives for better or worse.
(SPOILER) The secrets of St. Jude begin with Mercedes Byrne who endures one of the most awful things any woman could ever experience—she is raped and tortured—but, dear reader, she gets revenge and it is very sweet. Mercedes, pregnant with her rapist’s child, partners with her brother Callum and they devise a plan that gives him ownership of her unborn child. Judith, Callum’s wife, while a minor character really is the catalyst for the way the story unfolds. She rules over Callum and his sister at the most vulnerable time in their lives. It is because of her that Mercedes is stricken to a life of silence. Fast forward to the mid-nineties and Annie Byrne who is away at college falls in love with a boy who is also from St. Jude but during Christmas vacation he up and leaves without a word. Annie then discovers that she’s pregnant and, despite her Catholic guilt, decides to abort the child. A few years later when Mercedes dies, all the dirty details of the horrible family secret come out. Annie understands why Gerry was sent away, why she and Mercedes were so much alike, and why people, even her, have to keep secrets sometimes. That’s not it though—there is a surprise ending—one that is revealed by the sneaky, old, busy body Sadie Griffin.
One thing all these characters have in common is their religious affiliations. I am not a religious person, but I understand why someone’s life decisions could be dictated by their religious beliefs. I noticed that most of the characters were controlled by or grappled with their faith. It seemed they all felt some sort of Catholic guilt when they endeavored to make a decision or act in a way that was not in accordance with the religious law. The interesting thing, though, is that none of them—Sadie, Father James, Annie, Gerry—were totally constrained by their confining religious affiliations. They did, in the end, what was best for them.
Across three generations, Fitzpatrick’s readers experience the consequences of living and dying with secrets through a story that is built on strong characters and situations that we all probably know from our own lives; the dialogue is fast and sharp with contractions, euphemisms and regional figures of speech, but it is the heavy and sometimes graphic story that really makes this book a compelling, salty read.
Interview with Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick
Both Broken Voices and Mercy of St. Jude deal with issues of sexual abuse. Is there any particular reason why you’ve included this topic in the plots of both novels?
I didn’t set out to write about sexual abuse, not consciously anyway. Yet I wasn’t surprised that the story ended up in such a black place. My imagination often goes there, it seems.
Growing up in a small town, you know almost everybody, and you hear whispers about a person, or a family, perhaps you know them well or just see them around town, from a distance, at the store, in church, at the post office. And you remember what you’ve heard or what was implied. And you think, that can’t be, he’s too upstanding a man, he doesn’t look like he would do that to his child, to a neighbour’s child. Or perhaps there’s a strange man, an odd looking fellow who always walks alone, who everyone is afraid of, who has a reputation for doing bad things to girls, and you cross the street or walk faster when he’s within sight. And sometimes, years later, you discover that yes, indeed, that family man did do those things to his daughter, who now is a raging alcoholic. Or you find out that the loner-guy you were so afraid of never did a thing to anybody, that somebody told one little lie or exaggeration one time, and that poor soul was never allowed to get past that.
I have to say that writing about such dark topics has had an interesting aftereffect. One day, when talking with an acquaintance about a troubled young girl we both knew, she said that surely I would understand how the girl must feel given my history. I must have looked baffled because she said, you know, like in your book. In another case, my cousin told me that a colleague of his had wanted to know how I was doing, were things any better for me, was I okay now.
Perhaps it needs to be said? I made it all up.
I think for most Newfoundlanders when we read novels such as this that are set in rural Newfoundland we think about our own relatives or families. Discuss how your family has influenced the characterization in this book.
I come from a wonderful large family: six bright, articulate, funny sisters; parents who were each unique in their own right, who always did the best they could with a family of nine on one income, and who, most importantly, loved us all to bits; lots of aunts and uncles and cousins – basically, plenty of character traits to choose from. I see shades of Uncle Donald in Joe, bits of my father in Dermot, although they certainly aren’t truly representative of either man. Perhaps the greatest influence I can pinpoint from a family perspective was my place in it as a child. I was the second youngest in a busy, noisy household. I was small and blended into the scenery, happy to be a fly on the wall when the conversation got interesting, overhearing details that I would never have been told outright. Of course, I didn’t always understand what was being said. I think my imagination filled in some wild and wacky blanks.
When did you leave Newfoundland and how has living outside of the province helped or hindered your writing about Newfoundland?
I left Newfoundland around 1980. I can’t really say if living elsewhere has helped or hindered in any significant way, to be honest. Sometimes I forget geographical details or colloquialisms, but those are easily fixed with a Google search or a call to family or friends. I never tried to be a writer when I lived in Newfoundland. If I was there now, would I be better or worse? Would I even be a writer? I don’t know.
Can you take us through how you develop a character like Mercedes? For instance, do you start off with a complete character who you know well or does characterization change throughout the writing process?
It varies. For the most part, the characters become themselves gradually. Each develops at a different pace, depending on what part of the manuscript I’m working on, how many drafts I’ve written – and believe me there are many drafts before I’m done – who needs to be drawn out better, who is too one-dimensional. Sometimes the characters surprise me in the direction they take, but it’s always interesting to see where they end up.
Regarding Mercedes, all I knew, or thought I knew, about her was that she was a miserable old bitch that no one liked. Her character grew out of an anecdote that I’d heard growing up, about an old woman who was being waked at home and her grandkids were drinking in the room where she lay in her coffin. After a few too many, they started messing with her body to frighten visitors. I don’t even know if the story was true but it’s what got me started with the writing process, just a dead grandma and a couple of drunk grandsons. Mercedes, along with everyone else, originated from that one little story that probably never even happened.
When Sadie appeared, I felt I knew her fairly well. (I should admit here that I adore Sadie.) What small town doesn’t have a few biddies, those women – in my experience they’re usually women – who know everybody’s business, who make snide remarks about anyone and everyone, who always have their nose pressed up against the neighbour’s window? Yet these women are not just stereotypes. They’re very real, with their own families and histories, their own particular wants and needs, and often, with their own vanquished dreams. I also channeled Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh in those 22 Minutes scenes where they talk about the latest funeral they’re going to. Those sketches always remind me of when I was a girl, listening to old women, always with that pained expression in their voices, talk about so-and-so who just died, how good she looked in the coffin, how sad it was for the family to lose one so young or, occasionally, what a relief it must have been that the old man was finally gone. Sometimes even, who might be next for the funeral home – pragmatic and ghoulish at the same time.
Do you have any recommended reading for Book Fridge readers?
I’ve been on a Lynn Coady binge lately: Saints of Big Harbour, Strange Heaven, and best of all, The Antagonist. Love that one!
I’ve also really enjoyed Trudy Morgan-Cole’s two novels: By the Rivers of Brooklyn and That Forgetful Shore.
Some other favourites that I see on my bookshelf: A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing by Cecelia Frey, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami, Critical Injuries by Joan Barfoot, The Sea by John Banville, Saturday by Ian McEwan.