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.”