Have you heard the story about the farmer and the snake? The man takes pity on a freezing snake and puts it in his coat to warm up. But is the snake grateful? No – once warm, it bites the farmer, poisoning him! As the man dies, he asks the snake why he would do such a thing. And it tells him, “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.” So I guess the moral of the story is that no good deed goes unpunished. Either way, it’s a depressing moral. I often thought of this fable while reading Mercury, which has both snakes and kindness that’s betrayed. However, there’s an opportunity for redemption that comes at a time when we least expect it.
Mercury tells the stories of two teenage girls: Tara, who lives in modern-day Nova Scotia, and Josey, who lives on the same plot of land but in 1859. Tara has recently lost her house to a fire. She’s moved in with relatives while her mother looks for work to pay for a new home. It’s a struggle to have enough clean clothes for school, but Tara desperately wants to rebuild their old house and stay in Nova Scotia.
On a side note, this is one of the few books I’ve seen that makes use of the cover art to really tell part of the story. Tara’s house burns against a black background, sending up flames and an eerie green smoke hinting at some of the supernatural elements we’ll find later on.
Josey, on the other hand, struggles underneath a superstitious mother and a father with little business-sense. She’s gifted with the sight, an ability to sense things before they happen. Asa, an Australian prospector, comes to their farm with a business proposition; there’s gold on the property that he’ll help find and mine, for a cut. Josey quickly falls for Asa, but her mother is more wary. This leads to one of my favorite lines, where her mother gives Asa a potato as a reminder that she, like all mothers, has “a thousand eyes – and every one of them trained on [him].”
The girls’ stories are further intertwined when Tara is given a family heirloom – a divining necklace that belonged to Asa. As the necklace brings Tara good fortune and perhaps a solution to her problems, we see that Josey’s story takes a tragic turn and the man she loves is not who he seems. Asa connects them in unexpected ways, having a profound impact on the family through several generations.
Larson expertly blends fantasy with the girls’ everyday problems. We see them dealing with the mundane – Josey’s farm work or Tara’s embarrassment at being mistaken for a boy on her first day of high school – and also tackling more difficult issues, such as Tara’s absent mother, her struggle with being displaced, and Josey’s growing realization that romance is more complicated than she and her friends ever dreamed. None of these issues completely occupy the scope of the story, but are just pieces that make up these girls’ lives. Larson’s characters feel very real. When Tara and Josey are confronted with the supernatural – a ghostly funeral procession, a hole that erupts with hundreds of snakes, or spirits called taibhs – they react with an equal mix of shock and acceptance. Readers looking for strong, realistic female characters will enjoy Tara and Josey.
I don’t get to say this all that often about graphic novels, but I thought the dialogue in Mercury was spot-on. Larson’s characters sound like actual teens, from the snarkiness to the timid flirting to the sullen conversations with parents. I floundered a little with some Canadian terms, but Larson came to the rescue with unobtrusive footnotes on things like donairs, soakers, and loonies.
Larson’s illustrations are done in a stark but expressive black and white. Josey’s story is told on a black background, giving it weight and a sense of foreboding. I enjoyed the way Larson used her characters’ eyes to convey emotion and the style reminded me of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Throughout the book, onomatopoeia float across the page, bringing another dimension to the story – school bells ringing, feet shuffling, or phones being slammed down.
Mercury presents an interesting combination of real life issues, fantasy, and historical fiction. It does not leave readers with a tidy ending – some supernatural elements remain unexplained and Tara and Josey’s future plans are uncertain at best. However, Larson has so effectively mixed magic and everyday life that this seems an appropriate ending for both girls.
by Hope Larson
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010