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A Question of Mercy

A Novel

Elizabeth Cox



Published: Oct 4 2016


Published: Oct 4 2016

OA Ebook
Published: Oct 4 2016


The inclusion of this book in the Open Carolina collection is made possible by the generous funding of

A cross-country odyssey that examines the blurred line between what is legal and what is right

Adam 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 by their family and the police. Jess's odyssey of 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 freedom and responsibility against a backdrop of questionable practices governing treatment of the mentally disabled, she also stretches the breadth and limitations 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 trekking through woods and 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, if only briefly, a respite among a curious surrogate family of fellow displaced outsiders banded together under one roof, and there she finds the strength to heed the call homeward to face the questions she cannot answer about her stepbrother's death.

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. Grappling with the powerful bonds of love and family, 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.

Elizabeth Cox is the author of poetry and short story collections and four other novels: The Ragged Way People Fall out of Love, Night Talk (winner of the Lillian Smith Award and a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), Familiar Ground, and The Slow Moon. She has been recognized with the Robert Penn Warren Award and the North Carolina Fiction Award, and she has been inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Cox has taught creative writing at Duke University, University of Michigan, University of Massachusetts–Lowell, Tufts University, Boston University, MIT, Bennington College, and most recently at Wofford College, where she shared the John Cobb Chair with her husband, C. Michael Curtis, fiction editor for the Atlantic.

"Cox provides a searing look at the painful, dehumanizing treatments forced on people with mental disabilities at the time [1950s] and the limited support their families had . . . Cox resists the easy ending and fills her novel with emotional and moral conundrums."—Kirkus Reviews

"This is a solemn, sad, achingly beautiful mystery. Like many gifted Southern writers, Cox worships at the altar of words. She knows the importance of their potential storytelling prowess, and not just in their meaning, but also in the way their sounds clearly announce their arrival and how pace can be set with them."—Book Browse

"The keenly felt loneliness of a mentally challenged person gives Elizabeth Cox's new novel, A Question of Mercy, its transformative power. Cox exhibits great sympathy for and empathy with people and fills her novel with many characters, each of whom have problems communicating who they are in ways that would ge them recognized as good, loving individuals."—Citizen Times

"A powerful and evocative tale of a family grappling with a cognitive disorder in a hostile time and place."—Booklist

"Elizabeth Cox's stunning new novel, A Question of Mercy, is steeped in Faulknerian virtues: love, honor, compassion, sacrifice. But Cox's riveting narrative is utterly original, a tale spun of wishes and sorrows that only these characters—the teenaged runaway, Jess Booker, her mentally handicapped step-brother, Adam, and their parents—can bear."—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

"A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox is a tightly written story of the emotional links between a teen-aged girl and her mentally challenged stepbrother. With elements of a mystery and a cast of sympathetic characters the book is a rare and touching look at the fate of one family's struggle with a tragic family member."—Tim Gautreaux, author of Signals: New and Selected Stories

"Elizabeth Cox writes straight from the gut with passion and compassion, but her characters are carefully wrought and her artful structure creates gathering suspense until the very end. A Question of Mercy is Cox's finest novel yet, and one of the finest I have ever read. This beautiful novel rests in the heart long after the final page."—Lee Smith, author of The Last Girls

"A Question of Mercy presents an unflinching view of mental-health treatment in 1950's America, but in Jess, the novel's heroine, Elizabeth Cox has created a character whose courage and humanity remind us that there are always individuals who will fight injustice. This superb novel further confirms that Cox is one of our most profound and gifted novelist."—Ron Rash, author of Above the Waterfall

"With echoes of The Sound and the Fury, this novel is a thrilling story of compassion and adventure, of a desperate journey in quest of home and family. Like all great stories, it concerns a conflict of loyalties, not good versus evil, but one good versus another, heart versus the laws of society. It is also a mystery, a narrative of haunting secrets, told in a polyphony of viewpoints, and a celebration of unconditional love."—Robert Morgan, author of Chasing the North Star

"This novel places the reader right in the heart of an ethical situation, weighing out right from wrong—the human heart and the laws of society in conflict with each other. It is about extreme practices and ethical questions in the broadest sense, but it is also about trust and faith and compassion—the guiding factors that tend to lead Elizabeth Cox's characters forward. There is romantic love. There is familial love. There is humor. There is grief. Ultimately, it is a novel about mercy and a level of love and devotion worthy of sacrifice."—Jill McCorkle, from the foreword

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