Toni Morrison—alongside Philip Roth and John Updike—represents the vanguard of excellence in American literature. The release of a new work by her, who began writing a bit later than Roth or Updike, is an always eagerly anticipated literary event.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Morrison worked as an editor at Random House before publishing The Bluest Eye, her first novel, in 1970. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, has taught at Princeton (among other universities) and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1981. Morrison, who has long understood and is unapologetic regarding “the necessity of the artist being a politician,” won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
In A Mercy, as in her eight earlier novels, Morrison revisits and builds on multiple themes—the roles of women, both of color and white, in a racist, patriarchal society; the value of language and storytelling; the far-reaching influence of slavery on this country; the inherent social distinctions involved in being a part of a community; and what might happen if women banded together in order to consolidate their power.
Though physically slight, the novel takes on the epic consequences and conflicting impulses underlying the buying, selling and trading of humans in the 17th century. Set in the Americas during a time when slavery was still relatively new to the colonies, the novel uses the story of a mother and daughter as a springboard to explore the early class and religious differences between the settlers of America that allowed slavery and racial hatred to thrive.
Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader caught up in an unfortunate business deal, takes a young slave girl who has been taught to read and write as partial payment on a bad debt. Her mother understands that “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady,” Florens has reached a dangerous age; the master and his wife have both been eyeing the child with the understanding that she will soon be of age to bear children of her own. Florens’s mother, recognizing Jacob’s distaste for slaveholding and the look in his eyes that tells he knows this child is a human being, believes bartering her for the moneys owed is Florens’s best chance to have a modest amount of control over what happens to her body in a world where owning and/or bartering flesh is acceptable.
Knowing that he would have few opportunities to settle the debt more honorably in Maryland, Jacob accepts the child. Florens, feeling displaced by her infant brother, rejected by her mother who brokered the exchange and cast out from the only home she has known, begins a lifelong quest for love. Initially she attempts to find a mother surrogate in Lina, an older servant at her new master’s house; later she believes she has found love with an African blacksmith who has always been free.
Florens’s arrival at Jacob Vaark’s farm disrupts the household hierarchy. Jacob believes his young charge is not as capable or intelligent as his older servants. His wife, Rebekka, who was persecuted for her religious beliefs in England, understands she has little power to protect her charges while her husband is away on business. The couple’s first servants—Lina, an indigenous woman who watched her tribe die from smallpox, and Sorrow, a woman of mixed race who spent too long at sea—have seen too much sorrow to be “normal.” Willard and Scully, the indentured servants, keep deliberately extending their servitude in order to live in “the grandest house in the region.” The women’s alliances, desires, hopes, sorrows and points of view shift repeatedly throughout the narrative. Each character, suffering from issues of abandonment, betrayal or loss, represents an unsavory part of America’s past.
One of the novel’s great strengths is the way in which Morrison allows each character to tell his or her portion of the story, creating a chorus of individuals attempting (with varying degrees of success or indifference) to reach out to one another. Florens’s mother, whose act of mercy sets the sequence of events in motion, is allowed the last narrative to explain—and defend—her choice to send her daughter away.
A Mercy proves yet again that Morrison’s extraordinary storytelling abilities have not diminished. She has consistently produced powerful work that resonates with readers of both literary and popular fiction. Heart-wrenching and evocative, A Mercy proposes that love and grief are permanently intertwined in human DNA and that only through storytelling can that love and grief combine to create redemption in the human spirit.