The book begins in Gastonia, North Carolina, and takes place over the summer of “The Great Home Run Race” in 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire each were closing in on breaking the single-season home run record set by New York Yankee Roger Maris in 1961.
Suddenly baseball was once again captivating Americans, especially those who played the game themselves. This Dark Road to Mercy begins with a baseball game in which twelve-year-old Easter Quillby is playing a kick-ball version of baseball, watched by her six-year-old sister Ruby. The girls live in a foster home. Their mother has recently died, and their wayward father, Wade, an ex-minor league baseball player, left three years before. But Ruby as well as Easter’s sort-of boyfriend Marcus aren’t the only ones watching Easter play, because suddenly Wade appears on the bleachers. He so disconcerts Easter that she tries to come home from third on a tap to the pitcher when she shouldn’t, and is tagged out. She then goes over to talk to Wade. He tells her he wants to see Ruby and her again: “I know it seems too late, but y’all are all I’ve got.” Easter argues “You don’t got us anymore.”
Wade begs the foster mother for the girls to be released into his custody, but she has a document showing that Wade relinquished parental rights long ago. Determined to reclaim them, he goes in through the girls’ bedroom window at night to take them away. Easter might have been inclined to shun him, but Ruby is clinging to Wade. More critically, a very nasty looking man had come around the baseball field looking for Easter, telling her that her daddy was in trouble. The man scared her a lot more than Wade, so she and Ruby climbed out the window, and got into the car with Wade.
The brutish man on Wade’s trail, Robert Pruitt, has been hired to find and “dispose” of Wade because Wade absconded with a cache of money originally stolen by a local gangster. Pruitt was more than eager to take the job; a former ball player himself, he had a bad encounter with Wade in a game, and wants revenge on him for personal reasons.
Brady Weller, the girls’ court-appointed guardian, also won’t sit still for the abduction. He was forced to retire as a police detective because of questionable conduct, but he is looking to redeem himself, and he still has contacts who can help him find out where Wade has gone.
As the tension ratchets up, Easter, Brady and Pruitt alternately narrate what is taking place. The heat of this pursuit is mirrored in the ongoing race between McGwire and Sosa. By the end of August, both McGwire and Sosa were tied at 55 home runs. The two plot strands coalesce and come to a head at the seminal game on September 8, during which Maris’s record was finally bested.
Discussion: There is some brutality in this book, and a lot of darkness. But it is ultimately uplifting. Wade makes you believe in his desire to be a dad to the girls, and Easter affirms his love in a breathtaking act of sacrifice.
If you also read the author’s debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, you will recognize some of the themes and narrative techniques, but the plot lines are quite different.
Evaluation: Wiley Cash is an excellent writer, and this is a memorable story. It’s realistic enough to be scary, sad, and a bit hopeful, all at once. Jim read it also, and liked it even more than I did; he would rate it a 4/5. (I tend to not to enjoy reading about nasty characters as much as he does.)
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2014