Small Mercies: A Novel

by Dennis Lehane

Hardcover, 2023

Call number




Harper (2023), 320 pages


"One night Mary Pat's teenage daughter Jules stays out late and doesn't come home. That same evening, a young Black man is found dead, struck by a subway train under mysterious circumstances. The two events seem unconnected. But Mary Pat, propelled by a desperate search for her missing daughter, begins turning over stones best left untouched--asking questions that bother Marty Butler, chieftain of the Irish mob, and the men who work for him, men who don't take kindly to any threat to their business"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member froxgirl
If you lived in Boston during the busing crisis of the mid 1970's, this will be a familiar story to you, and you'll understand why Dennis Lehane of Dorchester said it was a necessity for him to write it, finally. Even after all this time, even after all the misery, even after Whitey Bulger was
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caught and killed in prison, even if thousands of school children were cheated out of their educations, even if you remember ROAR and Pixie Palladino and Louise Day Hicks and Dapper O'Neill, and even if working class and poor white and Black families are now being forced from their former segregated neighborhoods by wealthy renovators, you'll need to read this. If you come from anywhere else and weren't even born yet, you'll be stunned by Mary Pat Fennessy, 42, of the Southie projects, raised in hatred and violence, brought up in the code of omerta, that snitches get stitches, who loves fighting with her fists more than relaxing with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, whose breaking point is when her teenage daughter disappears and no one saw anything and no one knows anything, this after losing her son to an overdose, and after two divorces. And Mary Pat will meet Bobby Coyne, BPD detective, Dorchester native, who runs up against her when he finds out that her missing daughter Jules may have been involved in the murder of a young Black man at an MBTA station. This novel brings back all the ugliness, but the pain of the reader dims before the authority and command of Lehane’s writing.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
This is a wonderful audiobook. The depictions of grief, racism, senseless violence, long held prejudices and xenophobia were very well done. Another strong point was how little tolerance there is for someone who steps out of line with the code of conduct in Southie. Mary Pat was a great character
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as was Bobbie, the detective. As the novel progressed, I found Mary Pat's actions less believable which is my only negative comment.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers and I have read many of his books. I have heard that this may be his last as he devotes his time to screen writing etc. I hope not but if this is it then this is a good one. Set in familiar Lehane territory(Boston etc) during the beginning of school
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busing in the late summer of 1974, it deals with the embedded racism of South Boston and how strong was the anti busing sentiment of that time. The main character Mary Pat is 42 year old white woman with I dead son from drugs and a wild 17 year old daughter. She is divorced from her 2nd husband and her back story and those of her friends and family are of crime, violence, family, loyalty, and extreme tribalism. The main focus of the story surrounds the disappearance of her daughter Jules on the same night as a black co-worker's son is found dead in a neighborhood train station. The story goes from there with her pursuit to find her daughter. Lehane introduces his usual cast of cops, criminals and everyone in between. The book moves quickly and gets into Mary Pat's changing attitudes as she examines everything within her and around her to try and understand the extreme racial hostility from her white tribe. Lehane gives a great feel for the times and of course we can all see the connection 50 years later to what still exists. If you like crime fiction, then I strongly recommend this book. Lehane has written books that have turned into movies and he is very capable handling different types of stories besides crime fiction.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
When I was 9 years old the Ku Klux Klan blew up a bunch of school buses in Pontiac Michigan just a few days before bussing was set to start in that working-class suburb of Detroit. I lived in a different suburb, and though I am sure we would have been subject to later desegregation action (my
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elementary school and my middle school were 100% White, and my high school was pretty close though there were a few Black and East Asian students) that time was not yet upon us. This event and the heated conversation on TV and among my parents with their friends and neighbors made such a strong impact on little Bonnie G that I can recall even the names of the protest leaders more than 50 years later. Dennis Lehane's choice to set this story of paranoic insularity, a neighborhood owned by organized crime, and bitter deadly racial hatred in the midst of South Boston's infamous resistance to desegregation was genius. He really got inside Southie and how the years of clannish neighborhood "rules" bred fear and hatred of anyone considered "other" and especially of Boston's Black residents, He also covers how that generalized fear and racial hatred was fanned by organized crime since the existence of a common enemy kept people from looking at what they were doing and also buoyed their protection rackets. This is not a strictly relevant aside, but my friend Anita and I were just last week talking about our picks for the top 5 most segregated cities we knew -- she grew up in suburban Chicago and I grew up in suburban Detroit and both of those cities made the list, but we agreed Boston took the prize.

The central story unrolls really smoothly, so I won't get into details. The action revolves around a mother avenging the murder of her daughter and to a lesser extent the "murder" of her son who was a heroin addict who od'd and who got his drugs from the same gangs that cost her daughter her life. That mother, Mary Pat, was in many ways an interesting and engaging character, and I liked seeing things from her perspective. The problem was that she was as educated or uneducated as she needed to be to make scenes work, and also as smart or intellectually average as she needed to be to make other scenes work. This is a problem I often have with thrillers, but there were some truly egregious instances in this book. We have a character who had no interest in school, no ambition to learn, and yet she knows about the history of harbor forts and the Boston Tea Party (she has a monologue about the meaning of "without representation" while she is beating down a drug dealer) and the subject matter of James Joyce. (To be fair she says she never read Joyce, but she knows about the things he wrote about and compares them to events in the book. I recognize he is Irish so there might be an awareness of his existence in 1970s Southie which was solidly Irish, but I am confident that that one would be hard-pressed to find nursing home attendants who watched games shows and joined racist groups in their spare time who could identify the major themes in Finnegan's Wake.) Mary Pat also became a tactical genius when she finally had her John McClane moment, knowing what people are going to do even before they know and understanding how to make physics work for her. I am not great with the use of Deus ex machina, and a woman ping ponging between being a female Derek Zoolander and Doris Kearns Goodwin pretty cleanly fits that description. Lehane also hits his messaging about handing down our racism a little (or a really a lot) too hard. Still, it is worth repeating that Mary Pat was mostly interesting and entertaining (in a violent and pitiable way) and I really liked the central cop in the story too. Bobby was the vehicle for lots of those racism-is-bad-teach-the-children moments, but also he was kind of like Frank Furillo on NYPD Blue. The cop you wish all cops would be.

If you are looking for lighter reading with a rich and interesting setting I think this is a good choice. And I did enjoy reading this, that is an important point. I just finished the book in a nearly 5 hour marathon and I would not do that with a book that was not fun to read. Still, I had enough issues with the convenient flickering brilliance of Mary Pat and some other weird choices (Lehane introduces a White male character who exists for no reason and is found out to be having a relationship with a Black woman and that fact is gratuitous and weird. There is also a scene with Mary Pat and her sister that seems as pasted in as many of my parenthetical asides in this review) to keep this at a 3.5.
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LibraryThing member diana.hauser
Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane is his latest ‘smack you in the face and rip out your heart’ novel.
I was a bit reluctant to begin reading because I knew, I just knew, I would finish the book seething with anger and frustration and not be able to concentrate on anything except life’s injustices
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for weeks afterward.
The year is 1974 and school desegregation (achieved by integrating young students attending public schools through ‘busing’) is about to begin in Boston. For white neighborhoods, especially Southie, it was like a call to arms.
For our main character, Mary Pat Fennessy, the busing situation just adds fuel to the fire of her spiraling rage, hatred and anguish. She is alone, having ‘lost’ 2 husbands, a son to drugs and now her daughter is missing.
The book is quite upsetting (for me). Boston’s legacy of intolerance and racism is very well-known and Dennis Lehane shows no mercy in describing the hatred and attitudes of many of Boston’s communities and citizens.
I particularly liked the historical tidbits that were included in the book. I had no idea that (then) Senator Ted Kennedy was booed and pelted with eggs and tomatoes as he tried to speak at an anti-busing rally.
I liked the detective Bobby Coyne who tried to reason with Mary Pat and slow down her vengeance.
I liked the courage of Calliope Williamson as she spoke with Mary Pat after the funeral of her son.
A very good read *****
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LibraryThing member rosalita
Boston in 1974 had a lot in common with Birmingham, Alabama. A court ruled earlier that year that Boston public schools must be desegregated with the start of school in the fall, leading to a summer full of racial tension centered on the black neighborhood of Roxbury and vociferous protests in the
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white working-class neighborhoods of South Boston.

Mary Pat, proud Irish Catholic single mother and vehement anti-busing advocate, is distracted from the activism she plans with other mothers in Southie when her teenage daughter Jules goes missing. On the same evening, a young black man is found dead in a Southie subway station. Do these two events connect, and how?

Man, the racism and the foul language, the cruelty and the violence that characters perpetuate on each other is so hard to read — not because it's exaggerated or over-the-top in its depiction but because it is all too depressingly real. The ways that even Mary Pat — as close as this novel comes to a protagonist — speaks about black people is like a bucket of cold water in your face. When the dead teenager turns out to be the son of Mary Pat's black co-worker at the nursing home, she tries and mostly fails to reach out to her with compassion, and is nevertheless surprised when her half-hearted condolences are met with anger and resentment. The gulf between these two women, who have so much in common, cannot be overcome with a clever plot point or one heartfelt conversation. It is bone deep, generations old, and will undoubtedly live on in future generations on both sides.

There are also more bog-standard depictions of neighborhood gangsters and drug dealing, and it all comes together in an explosive finale that metes out a certain rough justice that satisfies no one. But those weren't the aspects that stuck with me. It was the seeming hopelessness of the interpersonal relations between two sets of Americans who struggle to even see each other as human that still haunts my thoughts.
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LibraryThing member Twink
Dennis Lehane takes us back to Boston in his latest book Small Mercies.

It's 1974 and the schools are being desegregated - and the neighborhood of Southie is determined that's not to happen. The Irish American neighborhood crime gang is the one who make the rules in Southie - not the cops. Alongside
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this, a dead black teenager is found at the train station - and a white teen is missing.

Small Mercies is told through Mary Pat Fennessy's eyes. She's lived her whole life in the Southie housing projects. She's tough and has suffered much over the years - losing her husband, son and now her daughter is missing. This conflux of events sparks something in Mary Pat. She's had enough, lost enough and isn't going to back down this time. I loved Mary Pat - she does bad things for the right reason. She made me cry for her and her losses, for a hard life, for the limits life handed out to her. But she's trying to see things from another perspective. The other character I really was Bobby - a cop in the neighborhood. He thinks before he does, he's calm and sees the big picture.

Racism is a large part of Small Mercies - and it's darn hard to read. This is 49 years ago, and truly, what has changed? (More tears from this reader.)

Lehane is a fantastic writer. Small Mercies is hard to read, but impossible to put down. You'll be thinking about it long after the last page is turned. See for yourself - read an excerpt of Small Mercies.

Gentle readers - there are triggers in Small Mercies with violence leading the pack.
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LibraryThing member TobinElliott
I fell in love with Lehane's writing when I picked up Mystic River, and enjoyed the hell out of him through Shutter Island and his Kenzie & Gennaro series. I still believe The Given Day is one of the best novels I've ever read.

But then something happened. Lehane kept the Coughlins going through a
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couple of more books after The Given Day that felt like diminishing returns. And he put out a couple of standalones that also didn't seem to have that same bite and grit of his earlier stuff.

Still, every time I see a new Lehane novel—based on my adoration of those first nine novels—I get a thrill of anticipation.

And this one? This one did not let me down. I devoured this book.

I often complain, in my reviews, of authors who create unlikeable characters, but don't have the skill or ability to get the reader to root for them. I actually quite enjoy unlikeable characters, because the reading experience—when the book is done right by an author with skill—is a more challenging and fun one.

And in Mary Pat, we are given someone that, within a couple of pages, you feel her fierceness, but also her racism.

And, a side note here...this book is set in south Boston during the very real, and very racially charged period when the schools became integrated in 1974. And I had to laugh, because one reader noted her DNF of the book, because the author dared used the word "n*gg*r"...because, you know, back in south Boston in 74, during all this racial strife, NOT ONE PERSON would have ever used that vile word.

Some readers...JFC.

Anyway, so, here we are, with Mary Pat facing the prospect of her daughter going to school with black kids for the first time. In 1974. And I've gotta say, it's seriously been less than 50 years since this has been a thing? Unbelievable.

But now, here's the thing with Lehane. He's a writer's writer. He's an absolute master of dialogue. I'd go so far as to say that, if anyone can lay claim to Elmore Leonard's crown as King of Dialogue, it's Lehane. He gets more across by having a character not say the answer than most do through three pages of characters telling the reader exactly what they need to know. His dialogue is simply gorgeous.

Add to that his characters. I've read other reviews where they complain all the characters are "stock" characters. But are they, though? Did we read the same book? Because, yes, Lehane may start with a stock character, but he always subverts the readers' expectations by throwing a curve ball in there. He certainly did that here, but I won't get into spoiler territory to explain. But I will say that Mary Pat's ongoing parental suffering was a horrible, well-written, ungodly-awful thing to experience.

Then take a look at Lehane's plot. It may be safe to say Lehane has a bit of a formula where he sets up a situation, then gives it a twist, then one more twist, then brings it to a rather violent end, but he does it well, and those twists are beautiful things to behold. Even when I knew what was going to happen, still, as Lehane laid it out, it was always breathtaking. And heartbreaking.

And finally, Lehane has this way of dropping real-life realizations or observations into his characters' minds that are visceral truths about the human condition. There's very few other authors I've read that can do this, and even less that do it well.

This is a gorgeous, painful novel to read. And I adored every single second of it.

And now there are ten books of Lehane's that I think are fantastic.
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LibraryThing member EdGoldberg
Dennis Lehane's last few books have been disappointing and this is no exception. I wish he'd go back to his original mysteries.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Good story, but could hardly get through it and didn't want to read too long at one time because of the foul bigotry, hatred, cruelty and violence. It didn't feel over the top, but all too depressingly real.

Here are my notes as I read - (spoilers beware)

OMG Thom McAn & Purity Supreme - old New
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England brands from my childhood.

Not even 10 pages in and I'm in another world. A grotty one. Where mother and daughter say fuck to each other and share cigarettes. Bleak and grinding.

The racism is so unreal. Irish got their share of it, but have so much blind hate. Crazy.

A missing daughter & dead son have to be connected, but how?

Typical - ex gets out, away from the hate, anger & violence & he's the traitor. Is thinking this wrong with everyone or just an Irish thing? It's nuts.

p 87 Pat knows & speaks truth, but will she act differently? Eventually? (I mean being a racist asshole)

p 127 "Marty isn't just Southie's protector. He is't just Southie's favorite son. Marty isn't just the rebel for them all who thumbs his nose at the merely criminal, not a practitioner of hijinks and shenanigans, not just running an underworld that needs to be run by someone, so why not him? - is to believe Southie is evil. And Peg would never do that. So, instead of baring her soul to a sister who would turn her back to that soul and ask it to put its clothes back on in the name of common decency, Mary Pat didn't answer the door." - What an amazing insight into just how much shit people willingly accept in the name of belonging. Why not create another thing or another way to belong? They must like being used, abused & ground into the dust to accept it so universally.

p 207 were people this naive about criminals in the 1970s? Of course Marty is the source of the drugs - it's the most profitable, long-term investment.

p 254 he (Bobby) thinks idiot, marginalized cops are bad then?

In the end Mary Pat gets what she wants - to feel like she did something even when it results in nothing.
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LibraryThing member Jak_Z
Excellent modern noir style that captures the culture and tone of working class Boston as best as anyone has. Dialogue reminiscent of George V. Higgins- The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Reminds me of his earlier Darkness Take My Hand and A Drink Before the War but even closer to the bone.
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
Mary Pat lives in a poor white neighborhood in South Boston in the 1970s, where she is a single mother of a teenage daughter. Boston has just mandated bussing to desegregate the schools, and Mary Pat's daughter is one of the students who will be bussed to a black neighborhood. Mary Pat is racist,
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and she and her racist neighbors are fighting against the bussing laws. Against this racial tension, a young black man is found dead in a subway station, and Mary Pat's daughter is missing. The story is about Mary Pat's desperate search for her daughter, and the mystery of who killed the black man.

Lehane paints a very vivid picture of South Boston in the 70s. He manages to make Mary Pat a sympathetic character, despite her blatant racism, which is the especially ugly type of racism that poor white people have toward Black people, the need to look down on someone from the bottom rung of the ladder. Mary Pat acts from a fierce love for her daughter, and there is a lot of schadenfreude at watching this middle-aged woman single-handedly take on Boston's organized crime rings.
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LibraryThing member zmagic69
Small Mercies - Dennis Lehane

It is going to be hard to to find a better book than this one in 2023.
Everything about it is outstanding. Yes it is as good, if not better than Mystic River.
The author takes a real event- the desegregation of south Boston (100% white) and Roxbury - nearly 100%
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black and the forced bussing of students of these two neighborhoods to the other. It adds a murder(s) to the mix and let’s the sparks fly.
Excellent Book!!!!
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LibraryThing member techeditor
Here is some of the best character-driven fiction I have ever read. Now at the end of 2023, I may be changing my choice for "best of the year" to Dennis Lehane's SMALL MERCIES.

Background: the summer of 1974 in the housing projects of (Lehane's favorite) Boston, Southie to be exact. Everyone's upset
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about the new busing plan, that many white children will be forced to go to schools in black neighborhoods and that many black children will be forced into schools in their neighborhoods. This background is true.

The story: Mary Pat Fennessy's 17-year-old daughter, Jules, goes missing after meeting with friends one evening. So Mary Pat looks for her, and she's not afraid of anyone. As time goes by and we learn along with Mary Pat what has probably become of Jules, we see how tough Mary Pat can be. And she's just beginning.

During her search, Mary Pat learns of the death, maybe accidental, maybe not, of her black coworker's 20-year-old son. Little by little, she hears about Jules' possible involvement.

Working this case of possible murder is Homicide Detective "Bobby" Coyne. Separately, he and Mary Pat both come to know what really happened. They each are examples of a parent's love for their child. And she is an example of a mother's vengeance.

SMALL MERCIES is great character-driven fiction in part because it also has plot. Plus, I've read few authors who can write a character-driven story as well as Dennis Lehane.
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LibraryThing member dano35ie
This was an amazing read. It really has everything from Great Characters to Brilliant Storyline. Up there with Mystic River. Definitely on my TBR again list.
LibraryThing member Carol420
The story takes us to Boston and back nearly a half a century. In 1974, when the court ordered school busing, protests erupted throughout many of the white neighborhoods of some previously very segregated cities.... which it seems Boston to have been one of them. Mary Pat Fennessy was a
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hard-working white woman, the daughter of Irish immigrants, who was trying to keep ahead of the bill collectors. Her relationship with her teenage daughter, Jules, was close, but also trying. She suspected that Jules was keeping secrets. Then one night Jules doesn’t come home, and of course Mary Pat is frantic. The next day at Meadow Lane Manor, a retirement home for the elderly where Mary Pat works as an aide, she learns that the son of Dreamy Williamson, one of her few black co-workers, had died in, what the police are calling, a "mysterious subway incident" that same night. Mary Pat doesn’t really know Dreamy all that well, but she likes her, and is sorry for her loss. It now seems that they have a lot in common...they both have lost children, however they're responses to this event are very different, and... they experience entirely different levels of support from their two communities. Soon they come to learn that these seemingly separate losses; a death and a disappearance...have a connection that neither of them could have ever anticipated. The story mostly focuses on Mary Pat, showing her to be a loving mother and a decent person, but sharing the prejudices of her white, Irish neighborhood toward the people they feel are encroaching on their turf. It’s a hot summer, and tensions are escalating with threats of violence at a fever pitch. Mary Pat keeps trying to find out what happened to Jules and why her, no matter where or what the truth may be. What she discovers is how much she DIDN'T know about her daughter...her neighborhood, and who really has the power and the authority and how long it has gone unchallenged. In spite of their differences and their different circumstances, both mothers are willing to risk everything to learn the truth. It's a good story that will produce a bit of soul-searching.
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LibraryThing member mainrun
I read three Dennis Lehane novels pre-library thing (pre 2009): Mystic River, Prayers for Rain, and Sacred. I didn't recall the books thus gave them two stars. Librarything average rating is upper three, low four. Planning on re-reading them I saw Small Mercies had a solid 4.25 average rating. I
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gave it a shot, and glad I did. Very violent book and well done.
525 members; 4.25 average rating; 2/2/2024
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LibraryThing member vwinsloe
A mash up of the true crime story of Whitey Bulger's murder of his lieutenant's girlfriend, Debra Davis, and a revenge fantasy. Well done depictions of Boston in the busing era.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Set in Boston during the time of forced integration, this is a dark and brutal story of a single mother seeking the truth about the disappearance of her teenage daughter. All the grit of poverty, race, and crime come together in his story.

Mary Pat has already lost a son to drugs and now her
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daughter doesn't come home after a night out with friends, one being a well-known drug pusher. At the same time, a young black man is found dead on the subway tracks and witnesses tell of four teenagers taunting him. The leader of the Irish Mob, Marty Butler, has control overmuch of this area and Mary Pat's unrelenting probes into what has happened causes all kinds of chaos.

I wasn't actually convinced of the Mary Pat character; she seems a bit too brave and too "super-womanish" but it is a good read in spite of brutal scenes.
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LibraryThing member Ameise1
This was another Lehane that made me think a lot. Please don't get me wrong, I am against any form of racism, but the way the solutions were implemented in Boston to bring about mixing was doomed to failure in my eyes. How is this supposed to work when children are bussed across the city to attend
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a school where there are mixed races? The question that should have been asked is how to mix neighbourhoods so that different ethnicities can live together and the school would also be mixed. This is hardly possible in America because rich parents send their children to private schools and the public schools (as it seems here in Switzerland) do not have the best reputation.
The second focus is drug dealing and consumption. How easy it is as an Irish population that is against the mixing of the races, but big in the drugs business, to blame all misdeeds on the weak population. They are often supported/covered up by the 'white' police.
Sometimes I felt really sick while reading, with so much injustice. And I ask myself, when I look at today's American politics from a distance, why after so many years the USA has somehow still not come up with a solution to racism.
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