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Toni Morrison: A Mercy

In this relatively short novel, Morrison moves to the United States before they were the United States, during the 1680s. Jacob Vaark is owed money by a Portuguese landowner, D’Ortega, who is apparently well-to-do – even his teenage sons wear periwigs to dinner – but is, in fact, broke. To pay off at least part of his debt to Jacob, he offers him one of his slaves. Jacob declines, not wanting a slave but finally agrees to take a woman slave. D’Ortega refuses to sell that one. Jacob suspects that his relationship with this slave may be more than straightforward master and slave. However, the woman herself persuades Jacob to take her daughter, Florens, and he finally accepts. She will join the other women on his plantation and we follow her story and the story of the other women.

Lina is a Native American. Her tribe had been afflicted by smallpox and when the white soldiers had attacked and burned the bodies, the children were taken away. She was taken to a family but ended up with the Vaarks. It is she, with the remnants of her native knowledge, who more or less runs the place, particularly when Jacob becomes ill and dies. She has her memories of her culture and language but they are faint but she uses her skills to help those around her. Sorrow had spent all her life on a ship. When the ship foundered she had been asleep, drugged by the physician as she had her boils lanced. She barely escaped and was rescued. She refused to divulge her real name, at the instruction of her (imaginary) twin and was christened Sorrow and the name had stuck. Only eleven, she was very innocent and was raped and became pregnant without realising it. It was Lina who took away her prematurely born baby. Finally, there is Rebekka, Jacob’s wife. She was sent over from Holland by her father, who was happy to get rid of her at no cost, as Jacob was looking for a wife. She had children but all died young. The only one that looked likely to survive was kicked by a horse when five and also died. When her husband dies, she is childless.

Jacob had been very influenced by the D’Ortegas’ ostentatiousness and seeks the same for himself. On the advice of a man that he met in a tavern, he invests in rum and makes some money, though his wife is unaware of how he does it, only that he brings her expensive but useless presents. He builds a second and then a third house. He even gets a blacksmith (a free black) to build a fancy gate. It is the blacksmith that cures Sorrow when she gets smallpox but it is Florens who falls for him and with whom he has regular sex. When the blacksmith leaves, he is missed and when Rebekka gets sick after her husband dies, Florens is sent to find him. Her journey is a key part of the narrative.

The four representatives of the early American colony – a black, a Native American, a Dutch woman and an English woman – each have their own stories with their own issues and their own struggles. Morrison’s skill is to bring then together, telling not only the women’s story of early America but the story of those at the margins but who, nevertheless, contributed so much to what has become the United States. As she has already shown in other books, it is the contributions, above all, of the black and Native American populations which have all too often been ignored and that racism has been around since the beginning. In this case it is Lina, the Native American who is the strong one and the free black blacksmith the healer. Her novel is short but Morrison manages to pack a lot into it and shows us a lot more about how the United States came to be what it is today than many a longer work.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Knopf