'Little Mercies': Readers will likely grant author mercy over missteps

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New York Times best-selling author and Dubuque native Heather Gudenkauf is back with a new novel that’s a perfect read for a summer afternoon.

“Little Mercies” takes place in Cedar City, Iowa, and follows the lives of veteran social worker Ellen Moore and troubled 10-year-old Jenny Moore.

When Ellen makes a tragic mistake one hectic morning, she suddenly finds herself at risk of losing her children to the very agency she works for. Meanwhile, Jenny, thanks to a series of unfortunate circumstances, finds herself traveling alone from Nebraska to Cedar City, looking to avoid social workers at all costs.

Jenny and Ellen’s lives collide, of course, thanks to a series of coincidences. Each woman thinks of the other as existing in a completely foreign world, and each leans on stereotypes to understand the other’s landscape.

However, when Ellen and Jenny are forced to negotiate their personal tragedies together, they learn that the world they know — and the world they considered “other” — are more similar than they ever imagined.

A fast, emotional read with heartbreaking plot twists, “Little Mercies” alternates between Jenny’s and Ellen’s point of view, providing readers with perspective on what it is like to work as a social worker and depend on one in your everyday life. The women face tragic, difficult situations, but Gudenkauf provides small, lighter moments along the way — little mercies, Ellen calls them — to keep the pages turning.

All goes well until the final chapters. Gudenkauf rushes through the final scenes, leaning on a number of leaps in logic in an attempt to neatly tie up the plot lines. The result is a conclusion that leaves readers with more questions than answers.

But with a gripping plot and an Iowa setting, readers will likely grant Gudenkauf some little mercies on this final misstep.

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