A fictional novel examines a day at a women’s clinic


Several weeks ago, a library patron stopped by the reference desk, handed me a book, and said, “You have to read this. Everyone should read it.

I didn’t know the pattern but I was intrigued and noticed the title: “Mercy Street” by Jennifer Haigh. The library has many of her books, as she is a well-respected novelist. After reading the cover page, I understood the interest of the boss. The novel deals with abortion, a topical and polarizing issue, which generates strong emotions among supporters and opponents alike.

“Mercy Street” is the fictional location of a downtown Boston clinic that provides women’s health services. The clinic also offers information about jobs, childcare and affordable housing to its clients, many of whom are poor, abused, homeless or drug addicts, and often unaware of their own bodies. The novel’s protagonist is Claudia Birch, a middle-aged social worker who counsels women of all ages. She grew up in rural Maine with a young, single mother who worked in a care center and took in many “fosters” to supplement her income – the children and teenagers Claudia had to care for in neighborhoods close to their simple trailer. . She then left to pursue higher education but is familiar with the realities and challenges of low-income living.

“Years later, working on Mercy Street, she met her mother every day – pregnant girls in extremis, half-educated, destitute. Teenage girls charged with the monumental task of raising a human being and utterly unqualified for work.”

She also knows that older women often have few realistic choices when faced with an unplanned or troubling pregnancy. When a friend asks her how she can work at the clinic, Claudia assures her that “there is always a reason” for the decisions her clients make.

Claudia arrives at work each day, walking past protesters who gather outside the clinic, shouting cruel insults at those who enter the building – “a daily nuisance like traffic or bad weather”. She and other staff also face bomb threats, frightening phone calls and emails, and frequent sniper training. The dangers of their work do not compromise their commitment to the clinic’s mission. The book details the events of a typical day, from phone calls from the hotline to the types of questions callers ask, with cost being the most common request. Claudia sees the protesters as determined to decouple abortion from its relationship to race, education, religion, politics and, most importantly, poverty.

Three other characters, all male, play important roles in the story and are drawn with compassion and empathy by the author. Anthony is a lonely, brain-damaged young man who lives in the basement of his mother’s house. His lifeline is to protest at the clinic and attend daily mass at St. Dymphna’s, an old church that is to be closed. Timmy is a laid-back weed dealer who relieves Anthony and Claudia through weed. His hope is to open a laundromat, but getting a business loan is problematic. Vince, a former trucker, is a violent anti-government white supremacist who believes women have one purpose in life: to have babies. He acquired weapons and stored them for possible action involving Anthony and the clinic. Men have endured years of disappointments, delayed dreams, few prospects and bad luck. Unsurprisingly, their struggles caused anger and confusion.

In the end, the lives of Claudia, Anthony, Timmy and Vince intersect in a dramatic way and “nothing, nothing went as planned”.

Haigh dedicates the book “to one in four people”, acknowledging that one in four American women will have an abortion before the age of 45.

Madeline Matson is the reference and adult programming librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library.


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