NPR Scott Simon talks with author Dennis Lehane about his new novel Small Mercys. The film is set in 1974 Boston during protests against court-ordered desegregation of public schools.
Scott Simon, Host:
Dennis Lehane has childhood memories that have never been erased. Best-selling authors such as “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” recall the summer of 1974. In the city of Boston, protests have erupted over a court-ordered bus service aimed at desegregating public schools. On the drive home, his father took a wrong turn and drove straight into the protest, and from the backseat, young Dennis Lehane saw a life-size doll hanging from a streetlight. made it
Dennis Lehane: People lit it. And it was the Middle Ages, and it was very strange to be locked up as a nine-year-old.
Simon: Dennis Lehane’s new novel Small Mercy is set in the summer of 1974. A black student has died in a mysterious subway accident. A white teenage girl goes missing. Note to Listeners – Our discussion refers to the use of racial adjectives. The novel follows the girl’s mother, Mary Pat Fennessy, in her search for her missing daughter. She is loving, hardworking, ferocious, and a very special protagonist to Dennis Lehane.
Lehane: I know a lot of Mary Pats, but I’ve never seen them represented in literature or film before. There’s a certain type of women — usually women who came out of projects I remember as a kid, but some women who just lived there — you know, they’re on the so-called 3rd floor I lived in a building room. poverty. And they were able to face off against the man in a fistfight. That’s not to say they could win, but they had the ability to do it and were pretty fearless. So in my head, the image popped up of a woman being gossiped about by someone (male or male) and being beaten up at a bar. That’s where I started.
Simon: At some point, Mary Pat follows her own lead to Harvard Yard. She feels her students and hippies and her runny nose staring at her to use her terminology. why?
Lehane: Because she’s poor. She doesn’t belong in this world. Take the subway from Broadway to Harvard on the Boston red line, seven stops, I think, and the world will change. It’s changing culture. That’s changing — it’s a big financial difference. This is the road I used to go through when I was a child. Her mother insisted that I take piano lessons, but I didn’t want to, but she was made to take piano lessons by this nun in Harvard Square. So every Wednesday I would take the subway from Columbia Station, where I grew up in Dorchester, to Harvard Square and get off. I don’t know if my mother intended it or not, but I know she wanted to give me something, kind of a culture, but what happened to me was that when I was a kid, music No, there were 20 bookstores within a square mile of Harvard Square, and I loved it. If I got there early, all I would do was hang around the bookstore. And it opened my eyes to the world. So if Mary Pat goes there, she will at some point feel more comfortable in another country, perhaps Ireland, than in Harvard Square, she says.
Simon: Mary Pat doesn’t like the idea of a school bus. Black kids bus from Roxbury to South Boston, white kids bus from South Boston to Roxbury. And at one point she quoted politicians who endorse it, such as Teddy Kennedy, issuing blasphemy warnings, saying, “Just another example of the rich. It’s not too much,’ he thought. [expletive] It’s a castle on the outskirts of an all-white city, telling the poor people left behind about the future.” Isn’t that a pretty persuasive argument for blacks and whites alike?
Lehane: Yes. And that’s what I really wanted to find out, Boston’s public school desegregation had to happen. So, on the one hand, we have achieved what is needed: desegregation. Then the way it happened was a selective forced bus, not necessarily a good idea. And it was a case of neighborhoods, working-class neighborhoods being told what they would do, again without a vote. And the people who built that social experiment were able to keep quiet without affecting their lives in the slightest.
Simon: Let me ask you about language.
Lehane: Of course.
Simon: Yes, mostly raw.
Simon: There are a lot of racial adjectives.
SIMON: It’s hard to use now, isn’t it?
Lehane: It should be. But it was very easy to use back then, at least in the area where I grew up. The cover of the book features a photograph taken by Eugene Richards.
Simon: This is a little boy who looks up like a mounted policeman and has God’s Country Southie written on the back of his t-shirt.
Lehane: Yes. It was a shot of Eugene Richards taken during a bus protest in front of South Boston High School. And looking at it now, the graffiti he captured and all over the city, not just South Boston, including the worst racial adjectives imaginable, including the KKK, murdered everyone to see. – Fill in the blanks. It’s shocking and sobering to realize that you can’t hide from those pictures.
Simon: There’s a line that keeps ringing in your head. It takes years to build hate, but hope can slip around the corner when you’re not looking.
Lehane: Oh, that’s my favorite line in the book. I’m glad. I’m glad you liked it. This book goes into great detail about the price of hate. Mary Pat would admit she has racism, but she just doesn’t understand the depth of it. She thinks I’m not so racist compared to other crazy racists around me. And this is for her the terrifying legacy of her racism, how it was passed on to her and how it was passed on to her children, and how it finally happened in this book. It is a journey of understanding how we are connected to all that is. And that is the great tragedy. And at some point she realized that it had been sold to herself and then to her own children.
And she said this heartbreaking line to me, because I hadn’t planned the line. It suddenly popped out of me. I mean, they know. they always know Even a five-year-old knows what you’re saying is a lie, and you exhaust them. And finally accept it. No one is born racist. However, that is not the case. That doesn’t happen. I mean, it sounds silly to say that the world is going this slow, but two 4-year-olds show up on a playground and rape each other because one is black and the other is white. There is no such thing as not playing. . But by the age of eight, it may very well be. So I wanted to see this as a virus that is passed down from generation to generation. And that’s what inspired me to write this book, and in a way, I think it pushed me out of what I’d been holding on to since I was nine years old.
Simon: Is A Little Mercy your last novel?
Lehane: I don’t know. I really don’t understand. As a result, the contract expired after 25 years. I was drawn into the wonderful world of my favorite premium TV. I am a social being. It was never natural for me to sit alone in a room and poke around. This book was written when I was actually running a TV show and it came out of me because it had to come out of me and that’s how you become a writer in the first place. is. So is this my last book? don’t know. If so, I’m fine with that. That is wonderful. Sounds like a good mic drop. But if not, another book will need to come out of me. It’s not because you’re borrowing a book from a publisher, or because you have a deadline, or because you’re worried about your agent’s bottom line. just need to talk. And when that happens, I want to write another book.
Simon: Dennis Lehane – his new novel Small Mercys. Thank you very much for joining us.
Lehane: Thank you Scott.
NPR transcripts are produced by NPR contractors on a rush deadline. This text may not be in final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recordings of NPR’s shows are audio recordings.