Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf

By Becky Benoit

As busy moms, we all get frazzled and overwhelmed sometimes. I remember one particular incident when my oldest daughter was very small, an infant of only a few weeks old. I had carefully strapped into her bucket seat, painstakingly packed the diaper bag full to bursting with everything we might need for our brief trip to the grocery store, and warmed up the car, as it was winter. I pulled out of the driveway, mentally reviewing my task list in my head, drove down the street and was at least a block away before I hit the brakes with a screech. I’d left my infant daughter strapped into her car seat inside the house, next to the front door. As I raced the block or two back to our house, I was mentally castigating myself as the world’s worst mother. How could I forget my own child?

Imagine my relief when I realized, after talking to veteran mom friends, that I’m not the first to have forgotten my child somewhere. As we race through the crazy pace of everyday life, trying to meet all our responsibilities and be all things to all people, we make mistakes. Even the most devoted parent lets their guard down sometimes, just for a second, and occasionally the unthinkable happens.

This is the premise of Little Mercies, Heather Gudenkauf’s gripping story of how one moment of distraction threatens to destroy a dedicated mother’s whole world, from her career to her very sanity.

Social worker Ellen Moore spends her days, and in many cases, her nights, protecting children from the worst the world has to offer. Her devotion to her job often leaves her frazzled and stressed when it comes to keeping up with the demands of her own busy family of three children and a husband.

On a searing hot morning, Ellen’s husband reminds her that she must drop off their toddler daughter at daycare. As Ellen heads out to work, she receives a sudden emergency call from children in care, needing help. Without a second thought, she races to the address, where she calls the police and waits helplessly on the burning-hot sidewalk for emergency personnel to rescue to the two children inside the home.

Once the kids are safe, she returns to her vehicle, only to find neighbours clustered around and someone breaking the window. Rushing to the van, Ellen is horrified to discover her little girl strapped into her car seat, unconscious in the sauna-like confines of the vehicle under the merciless glare of the sun.

As the child is rushed to the hospital, her condition grave, Ellen finds herself caught in the same child welfare system she has seen so many other parents struggling through, her reputation called into question and her career at risk. Worse, Ellen faces criminal charges and is barred from being within 500 feet of her critically ill child.

As Ellen struggles to make sense of how her world has collapsed as a result of a moment of inattention, an opportunity for redemption appears in an unlikely form. Ten-year old Jenny is a homeless child, abandoned by her mother years earlier and left in the care of her loving but neglectful father. When he is thrown in jail, Jenny finds herself completely on her own, with only a backpack full of her most treasured possessions and a wad of cash. Ellen’s mother rescues the hapless child from the waffle restaurant where she works, and in Jenny, Ellen might find a chance to redeem herself. Though she can’t repair the harm she has inadvertently caused her own child, she might just be able to save the life of another one.

I love stories whose plots are ripped from the headlines, and Gudenkauf does an excellent job of showing just how much guilt and personal responsibility moms take on for virtually every person in their lives, and how much a difference one moment of inattention can make. This story dragged a little in places but overall, it was an emotionally-wrenching tale of a mother’s love and ultimately, her redemption.

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4 teacups