“Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done…” This is Nobel winner Morrison at her visceral and poetic best. The opening lines of A Mercy are both haunting and riveting: Her first narrator, Florens, is the voice we hear most often, yet the story concludes in the prophetic voice of her mother.

Morrison writes of a feral America in the late Seventeenth Century; a dangerously wild and seductive land in which opportunity and oppression coexist in a struggle to dominate the very land that beckons. Slavery of almost every sort is gaining its stranglehold on a country still up for grabs. It is especially dangerous for women and Morrison has given us four major players, Rebekka, a European, bartered away as a bride by her parents; Florens, the daughter of a Portuguese slave given away by her mother; Lina, an American Indian slave whose tribe was decimated by the plague; and Sorrow, a young slave rescued from drowning, then given away.

These women are bound by their abandonment and find themselves as a makeshift family under the benevolence of Rebekka’s husband, Jacob Vaark. Lina is bought outright to help Rebekka, Florens is given as payment for a business debt and Sorrow is accepted into this fold when she, too, is abandoned. Included in this “family” are two indentured men who work the farm. Another notable character is a free black, known only as “the blacksmith.”

Morrison’s women tell this tale. They move their stories back and forth in time. Each story has its own core, but enlarges our understanding of the other characters as well. Readers may find themselves flipping back some pages for reassurance and to get their bearings, but ultimately we let ourselves be mesmerized, trusting a master storyteller.

Rebekka suffered greatly on her sea voyage to America and ironically spoke to the ocean. acknowledging: “…that you own the globe and land is afterthought to entertain you.” Morrison describes Jacob Vaark’s travels in Virginia: “In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land. Even with the relative safety of his skin, solitary traveling required prudence.”

Life is hard. None of Rebekka’s children survive. When “Sir,” as Jacob is called, dies of fever and Rebekka, too, falls ill, Willard, one of the indentured men, thinks: “Don’t die Miss.” He speaks of what it would mean for the remaining women if Rebekka died: “Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile.” The truth of their situation is voiced by Scully, the second indentured worker: “They thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false.” The reader begins to understand that whatever freedom they felt was tied to that isolation and Jacob.

Morrison has given us a glimpse of what our country, before it became a country and before it was anywhere near civilized, might have been like for all its inhabitants, free and slave, men and women alike. A Mercy, both novel and meditation, is a must read.

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