While we were there, my sister and I were looking at family photos of our grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents. I saw a photo of my grandma that I have never seen before, and I was just struck by how beautiful she was in that photo. It was taken in the 1920's, and she was 16. She was just stunning, and I can see how much my Mom looks likes her, and how much my Aunt looks like her father. My Aunt promised to send my sister and I copies of that picture. I've been toying with the idea of researching family history, and this has spurred me on with that idea.
This book, Mercy Train, is all about family history. It is told through three generations of women: Violet, Iris, and Samantha. Violet's story is the most poignant. She is 11 years old, and lives in New York City in 1901. Her mother, Lilibeth, has fled from Kentucky and an unhappy marriage to New York, where she quickly becomes addicted to opium and goes from benefactor to benefactor. Violet is left to run the streets with other kids, picking pockets and stealing food. Her mother finally gives Violet over to The Children's Aid Society, which put kids on orphan trains and sent them out West to be adopted by people. Many children were put to work on farms, and treated very badly. Some kids found new homes and quickly forgot their past. Violet realizes she has to leave New York City because she will probably become a prostitute in just a few short years and doesn't want to end up like her mother.
Iris is Violet's daughter, and she is dying. She's 72, and the cancer that started in her breasts has spread and she's decided she's going to die on her birthday. She's divorced and lives in Florida, far away from Chicago, where her 40 year marriage saw her in a life full of dinner parties, society events, and involved with her children's school life. It was empty, and now she's happy to live alone, far away from it all. As she edges closer to death, she looks back at her life, and choices she's made, and contemplates what it all means.
Samantha is Iris' daughter, and a new mother. She lives in Wisconsin, and is a gifted potter. She's feeling disconnected from her husband and her life before her baby. She's struggling to find meaning in her marriage and her life.
The stories go back and forth between the three women. Violet's story at age 11, and between the time before Iris dies, and the year after she's died; Samantha has had her baby, and receives a box full of her mother's things. In it, she finds a bible with The Children's Aid Society stamped in it, and a letter from her grandmother to a woman in New York City asking for information about someone. It is dated 1910. It gets Samantha wondering: where did her grandmother come from? Why did her mother not tell her anything, if she knew anything at all?
I enjoyed this book, especially Violet's story. Each woman struggled with complicated situations, choices, and guilt. Each loved their daughter fully, but sometimes lacked the skills to show that love. This would make a good book group book, and there are discussion questions and an interview with the author at the back of the book. It's available in paperback, and as an E-book.
Rating: 3/5. Good writing, compelling story. The switch in character narration may be hard to get used to for some readers.