GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a junior at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page.
According to Merriam Webster, the first known use of the pejorative “abortionist” occurred in 1844. It was used to describe Madame Restell, a widely condemned abortion provider — also identified by the epithet “the Wickedest Woman in New York.”
“Abortionist,” adopted by anti-abortion activists as a derogatory term akin to murderer or butcher, has once again entered the public discourse. In 2022, as Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, half a century after the original ruling, Jennifer Haigh’s Mercy Street offers a timely perspective on what it truly means to be an “abortionist,” or an abortion provider.
The novel follows Claudia, a counselor at the Mercy Street clinic in Boston. Every morning, she walks through a crowd of protestors begging her not to abort her baby — thanks to McCullen v. Coakley, they can get as close to the clinic as they want. She notes that “Preventing her abortion was all they cared about. The bleak struggle of her life — the stark daily realities that made motherhood impossible — didn’t trouble them at all.” Still, Claudia remains stoic, resigned to the fact that engaging with them, attempting to correct inflammatory slogans on colorful posters or explain her choice in career, is pointless. “I don’t know how you can work here” is a familiar refrain, from both those who condemn her to Hell and those who worry for her safety.
Mercy Street answers that question, humanizing one of the most politically contentious jobs in America. Much like Claudia’s life, this novel is not solely about abortion. Her childhood, growing up with a single mother in a trailer park with a revolving door of foster children, led her to wonder, “What was the point of making yet another person, when the woman herself — a person who already existed — counted for so little?” Mercy Street is ultimately about the living rather than the unborn, but specifically the forgotten living.
Excelsior11, later introduced as Victor, is a Vietnam veteran whose belief in the “great replacement” theory compels him to join the anti-abortion movement, seeking to protect white fetuses. Victor reveres women for producing children but resents any woman who dares to become anything more than a vessel for offspring.
Inspired by an angry talk radio show host, he makes it his life’s mission to find the women who get abortions, leading him to Claudia’s clinic. He finds Anthony, drifting after a construction accident, and convinces him to send him pictures of the women entering the clinic. To Anthony, “abortion was a distant, abstract problem — a thing you were supposed to care about, like the national debt.” Still, he protests at the Mercy Street clinic every morning. Unlike Victor, inflammatory political speech or a sense of duty to future generations doesn’t inspire Anthony; instead, the opinion of Excelsior11, his self-appointed second best friend, galvanizes him.
Anthony’s ultimate best friend, and only other companion, is his weed dealer Tim Flynn. Here their paths converge again: Timmy is also Claudia’s weed dealer, providing her with a respite from the chaos and constant fear that comes from working at the clinic. Like each of the other three main characters, despite the dozens of people in and out of his apartment, he is alone.
Even the characters with only a brief, paragraph-long description, like a few of the women who come to the clinic, are fully fleshed out — their dreams and desires authentic and their fears haunting. Claudia meets teenagers with dreams of athletic scholarships, mothers who cannot afford another child, women who believe they might have become pregnant from a toilet seat. However, from “teenagers and middle-aged women; from nurses and teachers, cops and soldiers; sex workers and rape victims and survivors of incest” she notices a similarity in their apologetic tone, stemming from a “lesson they’d been taught from birth, swallowed and digested: at all times, in all circumstances, the woman was to blame.”
Much like the title suggests, this is a book about compassion. Many authors address topical concerns, supplementing headlines and paralyzing statistics with the reminder that actual people’s lives are at stake, but Haigh’s characters personify these abstract issues — feminism, poverty, extremism, white supremacy — with uniquely vibrant detail, delving into the psyche of each character. Skillfully, Haigh refrains from concluding with a neat resolution and tying up any loose ends, allowing the tensions of the story to linger after the novel has ended. Mercy Street is character-driven, lacking a high-suspense plot or dramatic climax, and yet Haigh’s vivid descriptions (and the current socio-political context) make this book impossible to put down.