- A Mercy
- Knopf, 176 pp.
Untold History, Unheard Voices
There is something very comforting about reading Toni Morrison’s new novel A Mercy. From our very first steps onto the page, we sense the warm glow of a fire awaiting us at the end of the journey. The small hint of light burns bright, the steady flame never wavers, and with a sigh of relief we put ourselves in the hands of a master and let her lead us home.
Courtesy of Nobel, Morrison is a legend now, and it can sometimes be hard for a legend to strip away fame (and even doubts about whether you deserve it) to concentrate on the task at hand. But with A Mercy, only 167 pages long, Morrison seems to be wholly relaxed and assured. Like Armstrong hitting the mountain stages, she is in the “zone”.
What may surprise readers on a second read is that Morrison can carry us along with her using only a slender plot. Set in 1690, and told from multiple points of view, A Mercy chronicles the short journey of a slave girl, Florens, who has gone for help. Her mistress, Rebekka, has smallpox, and they look for aid from a free black man with medical knowledge. The question is, will she make it?
Tree leaves are too new for shelter, so everywhere the ground is slop with snow and my footprints slide and pool. The sky is the color of currants. Can I go more, I wonder. Should I.
That’s it. Truly. That’s the plot. But to say that is all there is to it is like saying the Vietnam Memorial is just a black wall. There are an infinite number of stories in this book, with each new character’s narrative throwing light onto unexpected sides of the people we thought we knew. When Morrison takes us into a world, we do not visit it; we inhabit it.
And a hard world it is too. This is no schoolbook colonial America, with thees and thous tripping lightly off the tongues of bonneted ladies. This is a physically tough, richly textured landscape where people must grapple with nature and survive if they can.
Florens has come to this journey after being acquired from a Spanish plantation in a trade of sorts by Rebekka’s Anglo-Dutch husband, Jacob. Jacob owns a farm somewhere in the north of the nascent colonies and dabbles as a trader on the side.
Acquired is the operative word here, since the ragtag group that the softhearted Jacob gathers through his travels all “belong” to him in some way. Lina, a Native American, was purchased after her people died of disease; Sorrow, a promiscuous urchin, was rescued after being cast ashore like the Little Mermaid; Scully and Willard, two men who hint at being gay, are indentured; even Rebekka herself came in response to an advertisement. The melting pot of early America was as diverse as today, but it was a pot that 17th century patriarchs watched over carefully.
Morrison has always been interested in unspoken histories, especially those of slaves and women, but everyone, even the white man, has a voice here. One of her great skills is her uncanny ear; each voice is unique, simultaneously sounding like both past and present.
Take the thoughts of Jacob, for instance, reflecting on his dealings with plantation owners:
Which did not mean you could not do business with them, and he had out-dealt them often enough, especially here where tobacco and slaves were married, each currency clutching its partner’s elbow.
Then compare the clutched elbow with Lina’s fierce feelings on her past:
Memories of her village peopled by the dead turned slowly to ash and in their place a single image arose. Fire. How quick. How purposefully it ate what had been built, what had been life. Cleansing somehow and scandalous in beauty.
And then listen to Rebekka’s muscular reflections on her ocean trip to America, crammed below decks with prostitutes and female criminals:
Wretched as was the space they crouched in, it was nevertheless blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.
The verbs at the end, so common in older European languages, are key: we sense each character’s personality before we process the meaning of the words.
For a time, this diverse crowd is quite happy, or as happy as one can be in such circumstances. Lina and Florens become fast friends, Sorrow has a roof over her head, and Rebekka and Jacob grow to love one another deeply. After Rebekka miscarries her sons and loses a young daughter, servants and masters morph into a family of sorts – reliant upon the others for a kind of comfort. It’s a lovely fairy story, but Morrison knows it cannot last. When Jacob dies, the women lose their primary source of income and their protection against the world. Having shunned the larger separatist community of Anabaptists nearby, they are now in dire straits. And if Rebekka dies, Florens, Lina, and Sorrow have nothing. Such is the precariousness of genetics.
Thus there is a real urgency to Florens’s mission, though for Florens there is another reason for her haste. She has fallen in love.
It is the blacksmith, a man who had come to help Jacob build his folly of a house (from money gained through trading in sugar). An expert craftsman, a blacksmith, he makes the twirling snake and floral tendrils of the gates. He is intelligent, caring, apart. He feels for Florens, but cannot accept slavish devotion. He cannot accept, in other words, her willingness to be a slave – in love or life.
Having said that the story deals with many, it is Florens who is the true center of A Mercy. She is a talisman of the unspoken past, and Morrison gives us a number of images to help us accompany her.
For example, Florens is careful to tell us that as a child she had dainty, tender feet, feet that her mother lamented would do her no good in life. These feet must harden, though it may come at the cost of her open heart, in order for her to survive.
She also explains that she is writing her story on the walls of her master’s folly, which lies deserted after his death. Emblematically, this is key – a black woman of history, finally leaves a written record. It would be a somewhat obvious symbolic note if Morrison did not complicate it by the suggestion that Lina’s love of fire will obliterate the narrative.
Such subtlety in writing, as said before, repays rereading, if only to luxuriate in the autumn mellowness of Morrison’s career. It won’t be difficult to do – perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book lies in drawing one in so completely; there are no places where faulty construction hurls us back into reality.
Plus, we will have company. Ultimately, it is Florens who guides us from silence to voice, towards the fire and the destination. Though Morrison shows us not just a black, white or brown person’s experience, but the human experience of our American history, it is still Florens’s strange speech, laced with the Portuguese language of conquerors, which stays with us after the book is finished.
And also, most intriguingly, the speech of her mother. For Morrison does not end with the daughter, but with the woman whom Florens assumes has given her away. Brought from Africa in chains to the West Indies, then north to serve as a concubine of the plantation owner, she is finally allowed to explain her point of view, her past, her sacrifices. It is she who gives the title to the book and she who gives us the final moral:
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 another is a wicked thing.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.