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[366] A Mercy – Toni Morrison

” I don’t think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think He knows about us. He did. But He made the tails of peacocks too. That must have been harder . . . All well and good. But that’s our business. Not God’s. He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on his mind. ” [80]

Set at the close of 17th century, A Mercy details America’s untoward foundation, that is, rooted in exploitation of natives and slavery. In fact, the novel, bereft of any cynicism, reveals Morrison once more as a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. As the (yet-to-be-founded) country’s reliance on slavery as an economic engine barely started, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother’s desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master’s debt.

There is no protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below. [163]

The story unfolds through the eyes of four women. A traumatized Native American servant Lina, whose tribe had been completely wiped out by smallpox; Florens, the coltish enslaved girl at the novel’s center; an enigmatic wild child named Sorrow who spent life at sea; and Rebekka, their European mistress—Jacob the farmer’s wife, whom he sight unseen imported from London, still retaining raw memories of hangings and drawing-and-quarterings back home. Kind, politically and religiously contrarian, the Mistress quickly becomes friends with her servants, although she reels the loss of one infant after another in her isolated homestead.

Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile. [58]

Although Morrison doesn’t gloss over the injustices and brutalities of slavery, one still sees two original sins for the price of one: the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa. In this Eden that Jacob Vaark builds, who claims that “flesh is not his commodity,” he has to conform to the society’s psyche in order to survive. His money is no less tainted then if he’d wielded a whip himself. Slavery and its repercussions are realized through the stories of these women and of the men—Jacob himself, and a formidable free black man known as the blacksmith—who both stabilize and disrupt their worlds through love.

Cut loose from the earth’s soul, [the Europeans] insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. Lina was not so sure. Based on the way Sir and Mistress tried to run their farm, she knew there were exceptions to the sachem’s revised prophecy. [54]

Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, which begins and ends with the devil’s bargain referred in the title and expounded by Florens’s mother in the devastating conclusion. The novel is moderately difficult to understand at the beginning but becomes steadily intelligible as nuances made clear. Morrison dislodges the notion that slavery can be defined by race or class alone and extends her narrative to include multiple forms of mental enslavement that are rife even in a fragmented, capitalistic society. The women portrayed either knowingly or ignorantly surrender dominion of themselves over to one of more superior social status as perceived by the prevailing standards. Desire for stability, acceptance, love, and makeup for what was lost leads them respectively to condone their own enslavement. Slavery truly holds power over slaves when they accept it as their only path in life, when they lose the ability to own their own lives and instead believe in the value society gives to them—and this is what a mother tries to avoid. Faced with no choice, she made the one best choice: to cast off the daughter in order to save her.

167 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Toni Morrison (despite two attempts at Beloved) and I even own a couple others.

  2. Anything by Morrison is worth the time. Her use of words is superb. She has deep, somewhat ethereal, understanding of her subjects. She could take you through the pain of her characters, making nonsense of the statement ‘he who feels it knows it more’. I still feel the blossoms at the back of Sethe in Beloved. And the frustration of Macon Dead in Song of Solomon.

  3. This was the first book by Morrison that I read, and I didn’t enjoy it. I found to be slightly two-dimensional and lacking depth.

    I read Song of Solomon after, which I enjoyed a lot more.

  4. This one was a big departure for Toni Morrison. Very different, but I still enjoyed it.

    I liked that the book discusses, outside of enforced slavery, how we can enslave ourselves with just about anything in our lives.

    It certainly wasn’t my favorite, but it was interesting.

  5. Great review, Matt! Can’t wait to track a copy of this down for the TBR pile.

  6. i read 7 of Morrison’s novels for a single author course last year and adored her writing. A Mercy was not among my favorites (which were probably Sula and Song of Solomon), but i’d still take her writing over so so many authors any day.

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