A river runs through Tiffany Baker’s third novel, “Mercy Snow” — the Androscoggin of northern New Hampshire, a river that giveth and taketh away. Its filthy water produces stillborn babies, yet the river provides jobs in the town’s only enterprise, a paper mill whose noxious stench blankets the town and pervades the story. If the reader has ever had the bad luck to suffer that almost intolerable stink, it will linger over these pages, a sensation that, oddly, enhances the reading experience.
The novel opens with a beautifully written and harrowing description of a bus of children rolling down a hill into a ravine. The river takes the life of a high school senior named Suzie Flyte, and along with her the tense equilibrium of Titan Falls. Because the bus disaster all but destroys the lives of a backwoods New Hampshire town, one is tempted to recall Russell Banks’s unforgettable novel “The Sweet Hereafter,” another story about a bus that rolls down a hill in a small town, killing more than a dozen children and shattering their parents’ lives. At the very least, this likeness is a reminder that similar plots in different writers’ hands can produce separate works of distinction.
Banks told his story in the form of first-person testimonies from several townspeople. Baker has chosen to reveal hers with various voices as well, but in the third person and without need of explanation. Cal McAllister, the last in four generations of men to own the paper mill, is the unofficial mayor of Titan Falls; his wife, June, takes on the role of first lady with her home the center of the sewing circle, a tradition that harks back at least a century. June’s son, Nate, who was on the bus, was in love with Suzie. At the other end of the social spectrum, the Snows, a family of three siblings, live in extreme poverty on a remote plot of land next to the Androscoggin. There they have parked a rusty RV that only occasionally provides heat during a harsh New Hampshire winter. All three of them — Zeke, the eldest, recently released from prison; Mercy, the eponymous healer; and Hannah, who has become something of a wild child — are viewed suspiciously by the townspeople, who are only too eager to pin the bus accident on Zeke. June McAllister rides this wave of suspicion, even going so far as trying to oust the family to protect the person she suspects caused the crash.
Though June is the would-be architect of the town, it is Mercy who exposes the town’s heart. This tough, dirty young woman is adept at the healing arts, the kind of backwoods folklore learned and remembered by only a few. She uses everything in her arsenal to prove that her brother is innocent, even if that “everything” comes in small vials of pure maple sap that has restorative powers.
Battle lines are drawn, rumors are whispered, and the people of the town change allegiances, all in search of the answer to the question: Who caused the bus accident? In the way of all catastrophes, here a moment in time divides the before from the after. “The instant of great disaster, it is often said, is an elongated one, as if in witnessing its own demise the human mind is wont to wind the moment out long and then longer still.”
Families and lives unravel. June McAllister begins to suspect her husband of infidelities and, chillingly, much more. Their son, Nate, is never the same after the accident. Dena Flyte mourns her lost daughter. Sheriff Abel Goode — a Puritan name if ever there was one — is under extreme pressure to arrest Zeke. The ladies of June’s sewing circle, who have never liked the overly proper woman, begin to turn against her. “There was something else about June that Hazel couldn’t quite put a finger on,” Baker writes, “and that was odd, since everything June did was perfect. Maybe that was simply it. In Titan Falls there was no reason to try that hard.” Meanwhile, the Snows, led by Mercy, become stronger. Hannah, the young child, is urged to attend school but spends all her time in the library instead; Mercy becomes a shepherd with an ability to heal even the driver of the bus; and Zeke continues to outwit the authorities who want to run him off his ancestral land. Strength and quiet beauty begin to win over suspicion and desperation.
Strength and quiet beauty mark Baker’s writing, too. Her style perfectly suits the mood, time and place of this tale. Though it tells an old story that extends back at least to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “Mercy Snow” provides an authentic universe of damaged souls and a fantastical heroine who made this reader, when the novel was done, wish for a vial of that pure maple sap.
Shreve’s latest novel is “Stella Bain.”
By Tiffany Baker
Grand Central. 324 pp. $26