Toward the Corner of Mercy and Peace by Tracey D. Buchanan

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Thompson

With her debut novel, Toward the Corner of Mercy and Peace, Tracey Buchanan has just spiced up the genre of semi-humorous historical fiction when she introduces the reader to Mrs. Minerva Place, a persnickety middle aged woman who converses with ghosts from the local cemetery in Paducah, Kentucky.

The proverbial red-headed stepchild in her own family, Minerva strives to create a family for herself, the only way her self-protectiveness will allow, in the graveyard. Dead people can’t hurt her. All of us can identify with just wanting to be left alone when we want to be left alone. Minerva wants to be left alone more than the average person but she has work to do, and she has some emotional trauma that burdens her soul.

You’re prone to liking Minerva right off the bat. She is a compilation of a bunch of women we’ve all known over the years. Buchanan gives Minerva thoughts and internal dialogs that are utterly delightful:

But the butcher’s case stole the show. It beckoned with cool efficiency, sporting a silver bell you could tap for prompt service if the butcher was in the back finagling fresh bovine.

The thing about Minerva is that even though she can be petty, judgmental, and annoying, a lot of it is aimed at herself. Buchanan has found the way to make Minerva likable and humorous in spite of her small mindedness. On the very first page, Minerva takes a tumble in the cemetery and contemplates just how she is going to get herself upright when she hears someone call her name:

 “Mrs Place?” Minerva squinted. Tiny Johnson’s face hovered above hers upside down. His eyebrows seemed to be speaking. No, that was his mustache where his forehead should be.

Minerva doesn’t live in the past, but she assuredly lives with the past, not only with her ghosts, but also her memories which keep tripping her up just as surely as she actually trips on the first page.

The main plot of the story navigates the reader through the Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah where Minerva is solitary in her quest to create stories of the deceased. She tends to graves and takes rubbing of headstones. She then goes to the library to research the deceased and takes it a step further by imagining all that is not written, to piece together their stories:

Taciturn and fixed to a casual observer, Oak Grove Cemetery had risen to ask Mrs. Minerva Place to dance. The resting place that slept beneath a canopy of stars and branches and moss and granite winked at eternal constraints and offered Mrs. Place an engraved invitation. A bevy of invitations. Each gravestone vibrated with intrigue. She was compelled to learn more.

Oh, the stories! The questions! Who could resist such invitations? Not Minerva. So, instead of sitting on the sofa stitching a sampler, she sat at the cherry Duncan Phyfe dining-room table in her late parents’ home and wrote, her measured handwriting detailing the lives of otherwise forgotten souls.

And here’s the kicker—the stories are real! Most of those ghosts with whom she visits, and who visit her, are buried in that cemetery; their dates, and causes of death, are verifiable.

Minerva is plucky. She has made her life comfortable, if not small. She plays the organ at church, occasionally substitutes at bridge, goes to the graveyard, goes to the library; she doesn’t go to parties, doesn’t entertain and rarely socializes and only then if forced to do so. But you sense that she is always impeccably, if not smartly, attired; after all, she wears heels to the graveyard. She teaches piano. She does what needs to be done; she doesn’t complain.

Because she is such a fussbudget, albeit an endearing one, no one seems to notice or be offended that she is often dismissive. What keeps her from being offensive is that when presented with her observations, her responses are practical, funny and probably pretty close to universal. Buchanan has so artfully juxtaposed Minerva’s less attractive qualities with her substance as a person and member of the community that it’s not only easy to forgive her but also to snicker at her less than charitable thoughts and observations.

As if Minerva and her friends, and ghosts, and observations, weren’t enough to keep us entertained, Buchanan adds the next dimension when a new neighbor, Robert, introduces himself and his son, George, and Minerva’s orderly life starts to be thrown off-kilter.

This is the dual storyline—Minerva and her ghosts, and Minerva and her new neighbor and his little boy. The two stories bump into each other but do not intersect; what intersects are her feelings, which are confusion, guilt, inadequacy and hope. Minerva, despite all the evidence to the contrary, holds out for hope. It is what makes her vulnerable, likable and amazingly, generous, although that would be the last adjective she would use to describe herself.

Minerva, by her own admission, certainly wasn’t nosy, but she had overheard some gossip about the new man and little boy in the neighborhood. The child had caused a ruckus in the grocery store, possibly abandoned his wagon in her driveway, and was obviously a “scallywag.”

Not prone to liking little boys, whom Minerva perceives as messy, George brings her to exasperation but then manages to tug at her heartstrings harder than anything she could imagine. Robert turns out to be an unlikely companion. At first glance Robert seems to be a lightweight as a dad, and George seems to be mischievous, or at least under disciplined, as a child without a mom. This does not suit Minerva, who likes all her ducks in a row.

Accustomed to ghostly visitors, one day Minerva heard a noise in her kitchen. This is the sentence where Buchanan changes the trajectory of Minerva Place’s carefully orchestrated life:

A boy stood in the kitchen, right inside the back door. He wore a baseball cap backward and he smelled like wet straw and forgotten laundry. His big brown eyes, framed in thick lashes, stared at her. A curly mop of blond hair poked out of his baseball cap and a dimple punctuated his grin. She was filled with an unfamiliar urge to hug him.

Minerva is granted a great gift, which she, as usual, stubbornly, refuses to acknowledge. The reader sees it coming, champions her, roots for her, would wave a flag in front of her if possible. But the sensible Minerva, who had been wounded by everyone she loved and trusted, has tunnel vision. We want to buy her glasses so she can see what we can see, so carefully crafted by the author: the precognition which is wrapped in a tight bundle with anticipation and heart-sinking fear.

Tracey D. Buchanan, photo credit J. Dodson

Many first novels come to a screeching halt; either the word count has been reached, a sequel might be in the making, the author couldn’t part with the characters or just flat out didn’t know how to end the story. Not so this one. This story ends with hope: hope that good triumphs over evil, that there is such a thing as forgiveness and transformation right there, at the corner of Mercy and Peace.




  1. I’m putting this one on the stack.

  2. Heather Bell Adams says

    Fabulous review!

  3. Thank you so much for this review!

  4. fairymari367 says

    Having read the book I must say Mary Ellen’s review is spot on! Southern Litersry Review is lucky to have Ms. Thompson and her magical way of writing explain their books with such accuracy, without ever being there. She is a phenomenal researcher so that neutralizes her not having visited my home town…..several interesting points…Mary Ellen is a longtime friend, my family is buried near Mercy & Peace be cause I was born and raised In Paducah Ky…..small world

  5. fairymari367 says

    Addendum to the above comments…you’re going to love the book so much that you can ‘t put it down…!!!!!!

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