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Jane Ciabattari on Toni Morrison’s ‘A Mercy’

Posted on Nov 14, 2008
book cover

By Jane Ciabattari

(Page 2)

There is Lina, the native woman whose village had been wiped out by pox, sold by “kindly Presbyterians” to Vaark (“Sir,” she calls him). Lina has “cobbled together neglected rites, merged Europe medicine with native, scripture with lore, and recalled or invented the hidden meaning of things.” A lifeline in the wilderness to Vaark and Rebekkah, the wife he purchases from her parents in England, Lina has preserved knowledge of how to follow “the majestic plan of life: when to vacate, to harvest, to burn, to hunt. … ” At first a rival, she becomes Rebekkah’s protector, midwife to the children she bears and loses, one by one, and a maternal comfort to Florens. It is Lina who sees Sir’s building of a manor house requiring “the death of fifty trees” as courting misfortune, and who recognizes that Florens’ lust for the blacksmith is foolhardy, if not dangerous.

And there is tragic Sorrow—vixen-eyed, with “black teeth and a head of never groomed wooly hair the color of a setting sun,” Sorrow, who was raised aboard a ship and survived its wreck, to be found half-drowned and half-daft in Mohawk country and nursed back to life, her only stability her spectral companion, Twin. 


book cover


A Mercy


By Toni Morrison


Knopf, 176 pages


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Willard and Scully, the two whites, are indentured servants whose time has been extended. Scully was the son of a woman sent off to the colonies for “lewdness and disobedience.” Upon her death, her contract was transferred to Scully. Then a man claiming to be his father leased him for an unspecified time. Willard, who has a fatal fondness for rum, had worked the Virginia tobacco fields, one of 23 men—“six English, one native, twelve from Africa by way of Barbados.” By contrast, he and Scully found on Jacob Vaark’s land “the closest either man would know of family. A good-hearted couple (parents), and three female servants (sisters, say) and them helpful sons.”

These are the witnesses, companions and chorus to Florens’ meandering tale. On her mission, she encounters a group of young native men on horseback who give her water and food, and barely escapes witch hunters who perceive her as a devil. She at last tracks down the blacksmith in an encounter both shocking and preordained. 

Reading “A Mercy,” it’s suddenly possible to imagine a continent stretching westward from the Atlantic inhabited by thousands of tribal people whose languages and customs vary from forest to plains to mountain to desert to the far Pacific coast. A sort of Eden, as yet unmarked by pox or conquest. The setting for “A Mercy” was originally home to the Lenape, who were among the first to come into contact with the “Europes.” A nomadic tribe known as peacemakers as well as fierce warriors, the Lenape had lived along the Delaware River for thousands of years. The newcomers from Europe brought with them diseases and beliefs that eventually decimated the Lenape along with most of the rest of the native population of the continent. As the knowing Lina predicts, “Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they 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.”

But in the beginning, the possibility of harmonious coexistence, even collaboration, existed. This may be why there is, oddly, more hope, less pain in “A Mercy” than in “Beloved” and other Morrison novels. A possibility of redemption hovers over these early American scenes as Lina and Rebekkah become friends as “together, through trial and error, they learned,” as Jacob and the blacksmith work on the new house, bending their heads over lines drawn in the dirt and sharing an apple, as Willard and Scully deliver Sorrow’s baby. “A Mercy” creates an eerie aura of an alternative future, a “what if” imagining of another New World. What would have happened if the 17th-century laws defining slavery by skin color, making lifelong servitude for black slaves mandatory, and all those others that followed, had not been passed? And, embedded even deeper in Morrison’s questing text, in Lina’s story, what if the “Europes” had been able to coexist with and learn from those who first lived on this continent? What sort of country would we have made together? 

But Morrison, ever the tough-minded realist, offers only a whiff of this fragile possibility before she brings the curtain down with a profound and heart-wrenching final scene.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection “Stealing the Fire” and president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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