HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 15, 2008
Review of A Mercy
by Toni Morrison

John R. Guthrie
"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."
--Florens

A Mercy is a lapidary work, a raw and revelatory story of the conflicts and diversity of interests in the North American Atlantic colonies of 1682-1690. In that time and place, “execution was a festivity as exciting as a king’s parade.”

The story centers around Florens, a slave of African descent whose story is “full of curiosities.” She also harbors a dreadful secret. Her mother urges the Maryland planter who owns them, Senhor D’Ortega, late of Portuguese West Africa, to give Florens to New York farmer Jacob Vaark to settle an old debt. Florens, eight years old at that time, is accepted as payment in full, yet is forever haunted by what she perceives as abandonment by her mother.

This story recalls a time when slavery in one manifestation or another was a fixture for individuals of any race. It was an institution that could be as dreadful for the indentured white as for the black bondsman. Morrison also deftly portrays “the blacksmith,” a free black man of considerable standing. Slavery’s roots are traced by allowing indentured servants from Britain, black chattel slaves, and one who is Native American to tell their stories, the point-of –view shifting from one to another.

Slave girl Florens speaks only in the present tense, this emphasizing the fact that for her, life is too uncertain to contemplate a yesterday or a tomorrow. There is a certain wry humor in Florens’ telling of her master’s annual bath: “Sir bathes every May. We pour buckets of hot water into the bathtub and gather wintergreens to sprinkle in….”

Mistress is allowed to use the same bathwater after “Sir.” Florens contemplates her emergence from the bath; “I am thinking how small she looks…her naked skin aslide with wintergreen.  Lina and I look at each other. What is she fearing, I ask.”

Another aspect of the mélange of characters and circumstances of A Mercy is in the variety of competing religious traditions present. Maryland of that day was Roman Catholic to its very marrow.  Elsewhere Baptists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Native Americans traditions and others are present. The practitioners of each are often fiercely defensive of their belief systems.

Morrison’s recurrent themes of race and feminism as well as that of 17th Century oppressions are richly portrayed in this work. A woman’s lot is a harsh one; “To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.”

Lisa is a Native American slave in the same household as Sorrow and Florens. Her entire tribe was wiped out by an epidemic, apparently of small pox. She states that, contrary to the prediction of her shaman, the Europeans never leave, that more would always come:

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 far
away countries, take any woman for quick pleasure. ruin soil, befoul sacred
places, and worship a dull unimaginative God… It was their destiny to chew
up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary people.

This short novel may also be read as a prequel to Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, which is set some two hundred years later.

If the circumstances of A Mercy are grim, Morrison also portrays the undying belief and anticipation that moved so many people from so many places to come to the colonies. Rebekkah is the mail order bride from London of New York planter, Dutchman Jakob Vaark. Her steerage passage was prepaid by him. Steerage was low-ceilinged and dark. She was berthed with four or five “servants,” actually prostitutes who were sentenced to be transported and subjected to many years of indentured servitude to pay for their passage. There was also a 10-year-old cutpurse with “the singing voice of an angel, who had received the same sentence. As she contemplates her circumstances, Rebekkah notes that:

The intermittent skirmishes of men against men, arrows against powder, fire
against hatchet that she heard of could not match the gore shat she had seen
since childhood. (In that childhood, she was present a drawing and quartering.)
The pile of frisky, still living entrails thrust before a felon’s eyes then thrown
into a bucket and tossed into the Thames; fingers trembling for a lost torso; the
hair of a woman guilty of mayhem bright with flame…she thought of what her life
would have been had she stayed, crushed into those reeking streets, spat on by
lords and prostitutes, curtseying, curtseying still repelled her…Hence marriage
to an unknown husband in a far-off land had distinct advantages: Separation
from a mother who had barely escaped the ducking pond; from  male siblings who
word day and night with her father and learned from him the dismissive attitude
toward the sister who had helped raise them….

Passages such as this portray not only the difficult origins, but the fathomless determination of the emigrants from England, Portugal, and elsewhere. They abandoned all that had been home and came to a raw and untamed land, the land that was the United States of America in embryo.

A Mercy provides only sparse physical descriptions of its characters, Morrison clearly wanting the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.

Tony Morrison is considered by many literary types to be our greatest living author. There is some hint of heresy in criticizing as artful and skilled a writer as Toni Morrison. Yet her voice includes a stylist preference for non –linear story telling. While in many passages the narrative is ethereal, dreamlike and lyrically beautiful, in others it as detached in time and space as an unmoored balloon. In the final chapter, it may take the reader a beat or two to realize that the narrative and the point of view have shifted to Floren’s mother, first in Portuguese West Africa (now Angola) several decades before, in the time of her bondage to Senhor D’Ortega in Maryland. This sort of sudden shift is disconcerting and occasionally difficult to follow, though not so much in A Mercy as was the case in Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved.

Even so, A Mercy, is a rich and varied experience of a fascinating time in our collective history, a tale well worth any minor stylistic hurdles that the reader must overcome. It is a lovely and sweeping work, intense, filled with the color and anguish, the wonders and exultant hope of a new world birthing.


Morrison, Tony
A Mercy
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008
ISBN 978-0-307-26423-7
Hard Cover, 165 pages
$23.95


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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