A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Birth pangs…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.

I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.

Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.

….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency.
….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”

One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.

Book 5 of 25

This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.

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38 thoughts on “A Mercy by Toni Morrison

    • She packs a lot in to what is a very short space! And, like with Beloved, her characters became very real to me so that I cared about them even if I didn’t always like them. I think you’ll enjoy this one… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Very glad you enjoyed this as much as you did, FictionFan. I’ve always thought that that’s the best way to tell the story of the past – through individuals’ eyes. And at its best, Morrison’s style really is magnificent. I like it, too, that she doesn’t settle for the ‘easy way out’ depiction of characters. They are multidimensional, just as real people are.


    • Yes, I think if an author can make you care about what happens to the characters then the battle is more or less won. And while her characters aren’t always wholly likeable, she always gives enough for you to understand why they are what they are, which makes it possible to sympathise even when you’re annoyed at how they’re behaving. I’m glad I liked this one too – I was a bit apprehensive after not enjoying Song of Solomon as much as I’d expected to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not sure this one’s for me, FF, but I really enjoyed your review. It sounds like an interesting study, and she makes some good points about relationships, sacrifice, and equality. Looking back, ’tis amazing our forebears were able to accomplish as much as they did — especially without the Internet, automobiles, and TV, ha!


    • Ha! Maybe it was because they didn’t have those things that they had the time to build a nation! 😉 She really is a very insightful writer, with a lot of sympathy for her characters even when they’re not wholly likeable. Because she shows you why people behave as they do, it’s easier to forgive them…


    • I still haven’t read much of her stuff, but yes, I think this could be a good introduction to her style. I do think Beloved is a more powerful book, but it’s also more harrowing and requires more from the reader, I think. Well worth the effort, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a very thought provoking story full of humanity. Beloved is already on my TBR, but I think I might start with this one and build up to it.


    • She’s great at making you understand her characters so that you can feel sympathy for them even when you might be disapproving of what they do. Beloved is a more powerful read and requires more work from the reader, I think, but it totally blew me away. This is excellent, and I highly recommend it, but it didn’t have quite the same emotional impact. Whichever one you go for, enjoy!


  4. Goodness I love Toni Morrison’s work so much, she was such a talented writer and smart as a whip. I’ve yet to read this book and honestly didn’t know much about it but from your review it sounds like a historical fiction I need to pick up ASAP.


    • I only “discovered” her a couple of years ago so am slowly making my way through her stuff. Beloved blew me away and this one, while not quite as emotionally devastating, is really excellent – it feels like a really authentic picture of the early settlers. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀


    • Thank you! Beloved is more powerful, but this one is very good too, and also very short, It was interesting to see her show all the different bits that made up early American society, rather than concentrating on the slavery question.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This does sound like a really good book, what a treasure trove of books she left behind when she passed. The point that you make about America’s current difficulties being tied to it’s problematic beginnings is a good one, although depressingly, it makes me realize that so many of our countries were built on the backs of others that we have little hope! However, I will remain optimistic that things are slowly improving, and will continue to improve as we gain more awareness of our past mistakes 🙂


    • She did indeed – a true legacy! Yes, we all have murky histories, but somehow America seems to have got stuck in its. Britain seems to get on quite well with most of its former colonies despite our past behaviour, and Canada and New Zealand especially seem to be doing better with their indigenous populations these days. I do think things tend to improve over time… optimist, that’s me! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link – I haven’t heard her being interviewed, so that will be interesting. I’ve still only scratched the surface of her stuff, but on the upside that means I still have lots to discover… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a beautifully written review. I have enjoyed Morrison’s other work (although enjoyed isn’t quite the right word for such heavy work) that I’ve read but I’m always reluctant to delve into more because it is so hard to read. This one sounds perhaps more hopeful than some of her others?


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