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Jane Ciabattari on Toni Morrison’s ‘A Mercy’

Posted on Nov 14, 2008
book cover

By Jane Ciabattari

Toni Morrison’s glorious new novel, “A Mercy,” continues her poetic and purgative retelling of the story of America. Morrison’s body of work, which has brought her a Pulitzer (for “Beloved” in 1988) and the 1993 Nobel Prize, has populated our literature with an extraordinary cast of characters, from Pecola, the 11-year-old black girl impregnated by her father, who still dreams of having the blond hair and blue eyes that she visualizes as the ideal in Lorain, Ohio (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970), and Sula, whose path from small-town rebel to pariah contrasts with her best friend’s conventional choices (“Sula,” 1974), through Sethe, the fugitive slave who murders her own daughter rather than allow her to be taken back to bondage (“Beloved,” 1987).

Like “Beloved,” which drew us into the vortex of slavery’s vicious aftermath in the years just after the Civil War, “A Mercy” is a “rememory”—a ritual repetition of trauma powered by incantatory prose and searing images. This time Morrison trains her laser focus on a little-known period of slavery during the 17th century, a time of great cultural conjunction on the North American continent, when indentured servants from Europe, native peoples and African-born slaves were the serving class to a small group of landed gentry. 


book cover


A Mercy


By Toni Morrison


Knopf, 176 pages


Buy the book


Like most Americans, Morrison was unaware until recently that many white Americans are descended from slaves. When white indentured servants from Europe arrived in Virginia in 1619, at the same time as the first African-born slaves, their status was roughly equivalent. “The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable,” she told NPR. And so the European-born settlers along the mid-Atlantic coast where Morrison sets “A Mercy” were not just landowners, but also indentured servants given the choice of jail or exile, men working off debts or prison terms, prostitutes, poverty-stricken women and homeless children who survived the perilous voyage to the New World.

Florens, the Angolan-born slave narrator in “A Mercy,” shares with other Morrison heroines an oblique means of telling her story. She has only vague memories and dreams of her mother but survives by her own instincts, intuitions and signs from the natural world, even shape-shifting. When we meet Florens in the opening lines of the novel, her most ghastly transformation is behind her. “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you even in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark—weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more—but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.”

This opening passage plunges us willy-nilly into a mystery. Where is she? Who is she? What has she done? And soon enough we learn the year is 1690. Florens is a young woman, one of two black slaves on a Protestant settler’s plantation (there also are a Native American slave, and two white indentured servants who probably never will be free). The master, Dutch-born Jacob Vaark, has just died of pox; and the mistress, Rebekkah, has caught it and may be dying. Florens is sent through the wilderness to find a free black man, a blacksmith and healer whose wizardry may cure her. But it is Florens’ binding passion for the blacksmith more than her mistress’ dire illness that drives her. 

Florens’ first-person account of her journey through perilous wilderness, the spine of the novel, is interspersed with third-person set pieces following the other major characters. Morrison begins with Jacob Vaark, whom we first meet in 1682 as he rides along the Lenape trail with a sense of awe. “Breathing the air of a world so new, almost alarming in rawness and temptation, never failed to invigorate him. Once beyond the warm gold of the bay, he saw forests untouched since Noah, shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears, wild food for the taking. … Now here he was a ratty orphan become landowner, making a place out of no place, a temperate living from raw life.” 

Vaark finds his way to the Virginia plantation of a former Portuguese slave trader who owes him money. Even though he is revolted by the thought, Vaark reluctantly accepts the offer of a human slave as partial payment of the debt. A well-fed woman with two young children catches his eye. Sensing his sympathetic nature, the woman offers him Florens in her stead.  “Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter,” she says. Jacob Vaark, struck by the terror in her eyes, thinks, “God help me if this is not the most wretched business.” 

Vaark is a decent man, uncomfortable with the “thicket of new laws” Virginia had passed a half-dozen years before—a harsh crackdown after a revolt waged by “blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes—freemen, slaves, and indentured.” These laws eliminated manumission (the right to buy one’s freedom), gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only, granted license to any white to kill any black for any reason, compensated owners for a slave’s maiming or death. “They separated and protected all whites from all others forever,” Morrison writes, identifying a historic turning point, the first in a series of laws that divided Americans one from another on the basis of skin color for centuries to come. In Jacob Vaark’s view, these were “lawless laws, encouraging cruelty in exchange for common cause, if not common virtue.” Nevertheless, he accepts the slave girl, and adds Florens to others who help his wife, Rebekkah. And so a haphazard household assembles.

“A Mercy” harks back to the precise and potent language of Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye.” “A Mercy” is a compact book, under 200 pages. It’s not the tragic opera that “Beloved” is, but rather a chamber piece, with each voice carrying a clear narrative line. It is astonishing how freshly Morrison evokes this chorus of voices to transport us into a time in which the North American continent was still the Old World to the tribes that lived there first.

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