The Distance of Mercy by Shelly Milliron Drancik
When an Austrian university student raised in postwar Vienna betrays her father by moving to Chicago in 1967 to study the violin, she develops an unconventional friendship with an African-American woman that helps both women recover some of what war stole from them.
A story of human connection across the ethnic aisle, THE DISTANCE OF MERCY centers on Nicolette, who is haunted by her mother’s death in postwar Vienna and betrays her father by accepting money from her grandmother, a former Nazi supporter, to study the violin in Chicago in the late 60s. Nicolette is hired to work with Tillie, an African-American widow who lost her husband in the war. Through many barriers, an unexpected friendship develops. While Nicolette’s length of stay in America is brief, the impact of her arrival and the decision she must make before returning to Vienna are life-altering for both women.
Told in parallel narratives and against the backdrop of historical events, the story explores the depths of love, loss, and buried grief and uncovers the lingering and terrible effects of war and racial injustice.
The Distance of Mercy
Review by Kelly L. Simmons
From the first moment of opening this novella, you know you’re in the midst of something profound. Lyrical and poetic, timely in its history of our world today. Both lovely and sad, it is a coming together of the mind and of the heart.
The Distance of Mercy intersperses the stories of two women who, on the surface, could not be more different. Nicolette is an immigrant from Austria, who has grown up in the years after WWII; the second, Tillie, is a Black woman in Chicago during a time of openly racial bigotry. One has lost her mother to the brutality of war, and has lost her relationship with her father due to misunderstanding and pain. The other has lost her husband in the same war and faces racism and violence because of her skin color. Their stories are different, but the similarities are apparent. The imagery is stark as their stories unfold. Stories of loss, forgiveness, love, and family as they navigate the trials of their lives.
Beautifully told, Ms. Drancik weaves in the cruelty of war and the viciousness of racial discrimination. The relationship these two women forge is more than friendship. Together, from the ashes of their shared losses, they form a family.
The themes in The Distance of Mercy are as present today as they were sixty years ago. That is Ms. Drancik’s brilliance, just as are her characters and inspired descriptions.
The novella reads like a poem, albeit a sad one. A poem of love and loss in the midst of all the choices we as humans must make.
A truly remarkable debut novel. You’ll know from the first page, you are in the magic place of time and storytelling.