a mercy

Review of "A Mercy" by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen


Toni Morrison


Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen




How does one review a book by Toni Morrison?  Feelings of “I’m not worthy” are inevitable.  Reading a Toni Morrison novel is always an astounding, unsettling experience.   Morrison never shies away from bringing  her readers to the dark core of the matter, especially when that matter is the enslavement of human beings. 

A Mercy treads territory we’ve seen before in Morrison’s work, most notably in the Nobel Prize winning Beloved.  As in Beloved, Morrison takes on the daunting task of channeling the voices of slaves in pre-Civil War America.  One wonders how  a successful, educated, modern-day citizen of the U.S. of A. seems to understand so well what the lives of slaves must have been like.  Ms. Morrison’s amazing gift has always been her ability to create an authentic written voice for people who were unable to write their own stories.  Through this gift, she is able to give them and internal life greater than the obvious hardship of their situations.    

As usual, her characters, and their stories,  are complex, compelling, and real enough to walk off the page.  A Mercy watches the women of Jacob Vaark, an English trader recently come to the American frontier where he has inherited land in Maryland.  Though Jacob expresses some distaste for slavery, he accepts a young slave girl, Florens, in lieu of money to erase a nobleman’s debt.  The defining moment of Florens’ life is when Florens’ own mother offers her up to Jacob.  Florens believes her mother is preoccupied with her new baby boy, but Jacob suspects correctly that she wants to save Florens  from being forced into her master’s bed.  This is the profound, startling act of mercy in the novel’s title.


The act or idea of being orphaned is central to A Mercy.  Jacob was himself an orphan, and has a soft spot for unwanted children.  By the time he brings Florens home, he has already  acquired two other orphans to the household.  There is Sorrow, a silent, strange girl, the daughter of a pirate, who was found nearly-drowned by a sawyer who gave her to Jacob (the sawyer’s wife was unnerved by Sorrow’s sexual nature.)  Also, there is Lina, a Native-American  whose tribe was killed by smallpox.   The church that took her in as a child eventually sold her through and ad in the newspaper. 

Interestingly, Lina’s view of “Europes,” as her people called the whites, is that they have orphaned themselves from the earth, their mother: “They would come with languages that sounded like dog bark; with a childish hunger for animal fur.  They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god.  They let their hogs browse the ocean shore turning it into dunes of sand where nothing green can ever grow again.  Cut loose from the earth’s soul, the insisted on purchase of it soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable.”

The mistress of the household is Rebekka, Jacob’s wife by arranged marriage.   She is the headstrong daughter of poor, religious zealots, sent to America to the first stranger willing to pay a bride-price.  It’s interesting to note that none of the women in Jacob’s life ended up with him of their own free will.   Nonetheless, he treats them decently, and the hardship of life on the frontier turns them into a family.  But when Jacob becomes mortally ill, the women confront the reality that they are not a family: they are a man’s property.  They know that once Jacob is gone, is it only a matter of time before they are parceled off to other masters. 

Jacob’s upright character is, at first, irreproachable, especially compared to the other white Christians we meet in the novel who have somehow convinced themselves that they do “God’s work” by oppressing anyone different from themselves.  But after Rebekka gives birth to five boys and a girl who all die before their sixth birthday, Jacob’s character falters.  He is away from home more and more often, and squanders his wealth on impractical baubles, most notably, on increasingly bigger houses.  The last house he builds is gaudy and flimsy, falling apart before they ever move in.

 The only other men in the women’s lives are the kindly indentured servants from a neighboring property,  Scully and Willard,  who occasionally help out on Jacob’s property.  That is, until, a free, black African man, a blacksmith, arrives in their midst, unsettling the women.  Florens, especially, falls hopelessly in love.  Florens’ undoing will be the enraged jealousy she feels upon meeting the small orphan boy that the blacksmith has taken on as his own, dredging up memories of her own mother’s choice to keep her baby boy but send Florens away.

Morrison does not hand readers the story, but lets it unpeel.  Each character gets a chance a tell a bit of their tale in their own dialect, and only at the very end will we hear from Florens’ mother.  As in Beloved, the author moves backward and forward in time.  The theme in both novels (the unbelievable lengths a mother will do to spare her daughter) is the same, but A Mercy is slightly less harrowing.  Whereas the darkness in Beloved is unrelenting, A Mercy has moments of redemption.   Perhaps this is because A Mercy takes place in an earlier time.  America’s system of slavery was still in its infancy, and had not yet reached its brutal boiling point.       

The moral of A Mercy, though obvious, is stated in a succinct, rather unexpected manner by Florens’ mother.  At the end, we will learn how her tribe in Africa was invaded by another tribe.  Shockingly, her people were forced into slavery by other African blacks.  Those who survived the journey at sea were utterly stripped of their humanity in America.  Unforgettably, she says: “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to anther is a wicked thing.”   



Review of Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

Review for The Gathering of the Tribes www.tribes.orgReviewer:  Patricia Spears Jones December 29, 2008

Author/Editor    :    Toni Morrison Title:            A Mercy Publisher:        Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York Publication Date    November, 2008 ISBN            978-0-307-26423-7 Price:            $23.95


A funny thing happened on the way to my reviewing A Mercy-about ten thousand other reviews all praising the work, some with restraint, and some lavishly have already been printed, blogged, audio taped.  I sort of had to step back and see if the commentary was about the book or the writer? Well, it seems a bit of both, so be it.  I agree that Toni Morrison is one our most important and impressive writers. She has a well-deserved Nobel Prize to show for her imagination, curiosity and craft.  Her characters, particularly the women, are complex, befuddled, brilliant, brutal, terrifying, sensual and moral.  There are types in her work, but no stereotypes.  She also understands the use of place, thematic construction, and moral import of those themes, which does not allow her novels to simply live in some rarefied arts for arts sakes space.  Toni Morrison is not interested in wasting her time on small ideas or issues, and yet there is a great deal of intimacy and intricate detail in her best work—some of the it, like the scenes in Beloved and even the opening to The Bluest Eye—are almost too brutal to bear.

In A Mercy she explores a number of issues that she’s looked at in other works: the psychological and experiential experience of enslavement; the destructive aspects of Christian piety and the spirituality of resistance; the brutal development and destruction of continent’s landscape from development and/or neglect; and how these crisis’s effect relationships between men and women.  But most of all she looks at how, why and when women come together in comradeship and how and why those groupings often fail.  This is a lot for a 167 page book to do and for the most part, she pulls it off.

A Mercy is narrated by a small group of characters who find themselves in 1690 somewhere in the southern part of what is now the United States—most likely Maryland.  Florens, a precocious African girl “confesses” at the beginning of the novel, telling the reader “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you . . .” And ironically the story begins with her desire for shoes.  Her willfulness and her desires will be put to the test in the next 100 or more pages.  Most revealing, she is literate and writes her story on the walls of her master’s house, a house that starts to fall apart as soon as it is finished.  Florens’ fear of and rage against rejection flows from her relationship with her mother, who gives/shoves her away at the very moment she seeks protection.  But it is for her protection that her mother gives/shoves away as her mother declares at the book’s end.

Women’s powerlessness is stated from the book’s very beginning.  How women respond and resist these limits tests all of their relationships, particularly the maternal ones--is that my mother? Why did she contract me or send me away or why can’t she feed me?  The disconnection between mothers and children was in full flower in the 17th century—whether African, native or European because of wars in Europe and Africa; imperial aspirations, new products and new markets.  A Mercy shows these things becoming.  And in that, it examines how the position of women helped to advance these new and dangerous phenomena, particularly the exploitation and sale of children into bondage.  Women owned nothing of their lives except their spirit and much was done to break or compromise their language, rituals, familial connections, and beliefs.

Thus, Florens writing her own story on a wall represents pure resistance.  First, she’s not supposed to be able to read or write.  Moreover, Florens reads signs as well as words. Second, she enters and writes on the wall of her master’s house. And finally she tells her truth and it’s pretty horrific. Florens story follows the trip she is made to take at her mistress behest.  She is to find and bring back a blacksmith, a healer who also happens to be a Free Man of Color.  This journey is both physically and psychologically dangerous to Florens and to the other women and men left behind on the farm.  When Florens arrives at the point where she must continue to follow her mistress’ instructions even though it is very late, Morrison writes:  “Hard as I try I lose the road.  Tree leaves are too new for shelter. . The sky is the color of currants.  Can I go more, I wonder. Should I. Two hares freeze before bounding away. I don’t know how to read that.”  At the end of this passage, Florens states: “My plan for this night is not good.  I need Lina to say how to shelter in wilderness.”

It is the character of Lina that Morrison brings out a wide range of values, ideas, and intuitions.  Lina is native to the continent.  Hers is the land that has been seized by Europes”.   She survives a small pox epidemic and is taken in by “kindly Presbyterians.” But they can’t quite Christianize her.  When the opportunity to leave her happens, they do so “without so much as a murmur of farewell.” But Lina finds a way to live and work for “Sir” (JacobVaark) and his new wife, Rebekah.  The novel shows how Lina and Rebekah forge an unlikely friendship as they work a farm owned by a man who hates farming, even as he idealizes the farmer’s life.  Lina’s critique of the Vaarks is not so much unique as appropriate.  These newcomers-- the Europes-- to the land and their brethren (Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Papists) bring religion that excludes and dis-empowers people such as her, and allows for the misuse of natural resources.  She resists these beliefs with what she remembers of her people’s language and rituals.  She compromises where she can and she tries to “mother” Florens and neutralize Sorrow, who is pregnant and listless, whom she sees as cursed.  She tries to be the best servant ever to her mistress.  But the master’s death changes these precarious relationships and Lina loses her capacity to keep her own faith; to follow what is left of her culture.

The Vaarks-Jacob and Rebekah-Europes whose farm brings these and other characters together are interesting in that they articulate competing ideas brought from Europe.  Vaark supposedly hates slavery and yet takes on Florens as part of a debt payment from a Portuguese slaver.  Rebekah is a mail order bride. Had she not found a husband, she would have been indentured like Scully and Willard, the two white males working on the farm (and as amiable a gay couple as you’ll find in American fiction).  The idealized self-sufficiency of this couple is undermined by their children’s deaths, thus no heirs; their religious beliefs that leave them spiritually deficient; and finally by Vaark’s death.

Throughout A Mercy, Morrison looks at how certain issues and ideas that would become part of our nation’s culture and history are in the making in the seventeenth century—the nascent Golden Triangle: slaves, molasses, rum; the conflict between Protestants and Catholics as a stand in for empire building between Northern and Southern Europe; the lack of any kind of business ethics especially when it came to the contracts for indentured servants--Scully and Willard’s difficulty in figuring out just how much longer was their service to Vaark); the fear and ignorance of the European settlers and how that ignorance was used to demonized Africans and native people; how the putdown of rebellions led to Black Codes—a way to divide and conquer oppressed people.  And again, she does this with extraordinary economy using her characters’ experiences to advance the narrative and to reflect upon these problems, all flowing from the death of the patriarch.

Indeed, another name for this book could have been The Death of the Patriarch.  Much of its narrative power comes from Rebekah, Florens, Lina, Scully and Willard, even Sorrow’s reactions to Jacob Vaark’s death.  Those left behind are bereft of a place in a fluid yet hierarchical society.  Rebekah who had been seen as kind and fair becomes a pious and brutal mistress.  Rebekah’s changed behavior symbolizes her loss of status and her fear of the future.  As Scully muses near the end of the book: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate . . .”

And as Florens writes on the mansion’s wall, that future is a dark and awful one.  Not only does she lose the shoes she so desired, but also the man she thought wanted her –the blacksmith.  Her story includes a description of the hurt she put on him after he rejects her calling her a slave, but what he really rejects is her sense of sexual agency. Morrison’s skill in showing female rage is a wonder to read/behold.  “You say I am wilderness. I am.  Is that a tremble on your mouth, in your eye? Are you afraid? You should be.”

But ultimately, it is not that rage that Morrison wants us to look at, it is that lack of agency by these women; the impossibility to mother children when you cannot protect them.  In the final chapter Florens mother says her piece.  And here is where A Mercy gets too tidy for me.  The mother’s commentary on her daughter’s pubescence is important and her “Sophie’s choice” idea of giving her girl to a man who seemed unlikely to harm her makes sense for this story.  But while her choice will only buy a little time for her child, the novel ends with these ringing but I almost think too easily rung words:

“ to be given dominion over another is hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion to another is a wicked thing.”  I certainly agree with this expression, but it reduces the emotional power of the novel—it is as if she wants to say Reader I want to make sure you understand just exactly what I have been saying for the past 160 pages or so.  I think she should have trusted her readers to get it.  In many ways, the novel really ends with the hard soles of Florens unshod feet.

A Mercy is an important book with a strong central narrative, women characters you find yourself caring about as they try, but cannot be family because there is no way in which they can act on their own or in their own interests without becoming “wilderness.”  Morrison started many years ago to explore the untold stories in American culture and here she is three decades later still finding stories to tell.  With this book, she fights against our collective cultural amnesia about property rights, marriage, and bondage that relies on and upholds the power and abuses of the patriarchy.

Morrison is novelist who uses her vast intelligence, intense passion and growing sagacity to express her version of what matters this new world was founded upon: morally, legally, philosophically.  Race and gender play crucial parts.  Her telling can’t hurt us because she understands that with this telling the lives of women and men at a particular moment when a culture was in formation is only now starting to be more fully told.  Florens’ story written on the mansion’s decadent wall is an act of extraordinary generosity.  It is as if Morrison is saying we need to see how much wilderness we need to be if we are to really see/read our national identity.  Or as Dolly Parton sings “wild flowers grow where they grow.”