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On Sale: November 11, 2008
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother.

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.

Excerpt

Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know. One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mãe standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up to the door saddle to die. Let me start with what I know for certain.

The beginning begins with the shoes. When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes, even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettify ways. Only bad women wear high heels. I am dangerous, she says, and wild but she relents and lets me wear the throwaway shoes from Senhora's house, pointy-toe, one raised heel broke, the other worn and a buckle on top. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires. Lina is correct. Florens, she says, it's 1690. Who else these days has the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady? So when I set out to find you, she and Mistress give me Sir's boots that fit a man not a girl. They stuff them with hay and oily corn husks and tell me to hide the letter inside my stocking--no matter the itch of the sealing wax. I am lettered but I do not read what Mistress writes and Lina and Sorrow cannot. But I know what it means to say to any who stop me.

My head is light with the confusion of two things, hunger for you and scare if I am lost. Nothing frights me more than this errand and nothing is more temptation. From the day you disappear I dream and plot. To learn where you are and how to be there. I want to run across the trail through the beech and white pine but I am asking myself which way? Who will tell me? Who lives in the wilderness between this farm and you and will they help me or harm me? What about the boneless bears in the valley? Remember? How when they move their pelts sway as though there is nothing underneath? Their smell belying their beauty, their eyes knowing us from when we are beasts also. You telling me that is why it is fatal to look them in the eye. They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger. Giant birds also are nesting out there bigger than cows, Lina says, and not all natives are like her, she says, so watch out. A praying savage, neighbors call her, because she is once churchgoing yet she bathes herself every day and Christians never do. Underneath she wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small. More than fear of loving bears or birds bigger than cows, I fear pathless night. How, I wonder, can I find you in the dark? Now at last there is a way. I have orders. It is arranged. I will see your mouth and trail my fingers down. You will rest your chin in my hair again while I breathe into your shoulder in and out, in and out. I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me. To get to you I must leave the only home, the only people I know. Lina says from the state of my teeth I am maybe seven or eight when I am brought here. We boil wild plums for jam and cake eight times since then, so I must be sixteen. Before this place I spend my days picking okra and sweeping tobacco sheds, my nights on the floor of the cookhouse with a minha mãe. We are baptized and can have happiness when this life is done. The Reverend Father tells us that. Once every seven days we learn to read and write. We are forbidden to leave the place so the four of us hide near the marsh. My mother, me, her little boy and Reverend Father. He is forbidden to do this but he teaches us anyway watching out for wicked Virginians and Protestants who want to catch him. If they do he will be in prison or pay money or both. He has two books and a slate. We have sticks to draw through sand, pebbles to shape words on smooth flat rock. When the letters are memory we make whole words. I am faster than my mother and her baby boy is no good at all. Very quickly I can write from memory the Nicene Creed including all of the commas. Confession we tell not write as I am doing now. I forget almost all of it until now. I like talk. Lina talk, stone talk, even Sorrow talk. Best of all is your talk. At first when I am brought here I don't talk any word. All of what I hear is different from what words mean to a minha mãe and me. Lina's words say nothing I know. Nor Mistress's. Slowly a little talk is in my mouth and not on stone. Lina says the place of my talking on stone is Mary's Land where Sir does business. So that is where my mother and her baby boy are buried. Or will be if they ever decide to rest. Sleeping on the cookhouse floor with them is not as nice as sleeping in the broken sleigh with Lina. In cold weather we put planks around our part of the cowshed and wrap our arms together under pelts. We don't smell the cow flops because they are frozen and we are deep under fur. In summer if our hammocks are hit by mosquitoes Lina makes a cool place to sleep out of branches. You never like a hammock and prefer the ground even in rain when Sir offers you the storehouse. Sorrow no more sleeps near the fireplace. The men helping you, Will and Scully, never live the night here because their master does not allow it. You remember them, how they would not take orders from you until Sir makes them? He could do that since they are exchange for land under lease from Sir. Lina says Sir has a clever way of getting without giving. I know it is true because I see it forever and ever. Me watching, my mother listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minha mãe begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me. Sir agrees and changes the balance due. As soon as tobacco leaf is hanging to dry Reverend Father takes me on a ferry, then a ketch, then a boat and bundles me between his boxes of books and food. The second day it becomes hurting cold and I am happy I have a cloak however thin. Reverend Father excuses himself to go elsewhere on the boat and tells me to stay exact where I am. A woman comes to me and says stand up. I do and she takes my cloak from my shoulders. Then my wooden shoes. She walks away. Reverend Father turns a pale red color when he returns and learns what happens. He rushes all about asking where and who but can find no answer. Finally he takes rags, strips of sailcloth lying about and wraps my feet. Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here. A sailor spits into the sea when Reverend Father asks him for help. Reverend Father is the only kind man I ever see. When I arrive here I believe it is the place he warns against. The freezing in hell that comes before the everlasting fire where sinners bubble and singe forever. But the ice comes first, he says. And when I see knives of it hanging from the houses and trees and feel the white air burn my face I am certain the fire is coming. Then Lina smiles when she looks at me and wraps me for warmth. Mistress looks away. Nor is Sorrow happy to see me. She flaps her hand in front of her face as though bees are bothering her. She is ever strange and Lina says she is once more with child. Father still not clear and Sorrow does not say. Will and Scully laugh and deny. Lina believes it is Sir's. Says she has her reason for thinking so. When I ask what reason she says he is a man. Mistress says nothing. Neither do I. But I have a worry. Not because our work is more, but because mothers nursing greedy babies scare me. I know how their eyes go when they choose. How they raise them to look at me hard, saying something I cannot hear. Saying something important to me, but holding the little boy's hand.


From the Hardcover edition.
Toni Morrison

About Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison - A Mercy

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Toni Morrison is the author of ten novels, from The Bluest Eye (1970) to Home (2012). She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Spellbinding. . . . Dazzling. . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph.”—The Washington Post Book WorldA Mercy conjures up the beautiful, untamed, lawless world that was America in the seventeenth-century with the same sort of lyrical, verdant prose that distinguished [Beloved]. . . . A heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams. . . . One of Morrison's most haunting works yet.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times “Luminous and complex. . . . Some of Morrison's best writing in years.” —Time“Magnificent . . . As with all Morrison’s finest work, A Mercy compellingly combines immediacy and obliquity. Its evocation of pioneer existence in America surrounds you with sensuous intensity. . . . An attack by a bear is described with thrilling power. . . . Idioms have potent directness, too. . . . Rich knowledgeability about 17th-century America is put to telling effect. Voices speak to you as if you were there. . . . The book keeps you vividly aware of the vital human individuality that racism’s crude categorizations are brutally trying to iron out. . . . A stark story of the evils of possessiveness and the perils of dispossession emerges slantwise. Hints, suspicions, secrets, ambivalences, scarcely acknowledged motives and barely noticeable nuances serve as signposts to enormities and desperations: around slavery’s large-scale uprootings, Morrison spotlights individual instances of loss (orphans and outcasts are, as often in her fiction, much in evidence; compensatory alliances they form are warmly portrayed). A Mercy is so enthralling that you’ll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.”–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)“In [A Mercy,] a mother chooses to give her daughter to a stranger, the man who will ‘own’ her, in hopes that she’ll find a better life. It is this act from which the book derives its title, but it is, of course, an ambivalent gesture whose tragic resonance will be slowly unveiled. . . . Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called ‘the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.’ Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play. . . . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope.”–Renée Graham, Boston Sunday Globe“[A Mercy] examines slavery through the prism of power, not race. Morrison achieves this by setting A Mercy in 1680s America, when slavery was a color-blind, equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become. . . . Morrison doesn’t write traditional novels so much as create a hypnotic state of poetic intoxication. You don’t read A Mercy, you fall into a miasma of language and symbolism. [It] offers an original vision of America in its primeval state, where freedom was a rare commodity.”–Deirdre Donahue, USA Today “[Toni Morrison] bound[s] into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a doe. A Mercy . . . is that beguiling and beautiful, that deftly condensed, that sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity. . . . Finely hammered phrases repeatedly come off the anvil, forming a story as powerful as the many she has shaped before. Elements of this writer’s art from way back remain part of her achievement here. Like a mighty telescope perched on a contemporary plateau, Morrison draws in signals, moods, torments, exhilarations from African American life and history . . . Morrison mixes the verbal music of an era with idiosyncratic wisdom, delivered indirectly rather than ex cathedra, recalling omniscient Russian masters without imitating them. . . . Along the way come moments whose artistry freezes one’s page-turning. Morrison’s tactile reports rivet . . . What’s the opposite of ‘lazy’ in a fiction writer’s style and research? Industrious? Indefatigable? Morrison wears her knowledge lightly, yet every page exhibits her control of [the 17th century’s] objects and artifacts, its worries and dangers. She surrounds A Mercy’s more fanciful arabesques with a broad border of realism. . . . A book as masterfully wrought as A Mercy behooves its author to swagger. Go to it, Ms. Morrison.”–Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer“A grand tragedy writ in miniature . . . Women, men, Africans, Native Americans, whites, masters, slaves–all are cast into the hard world that is the New World in Toni Morrison’s lustrous new novel. In the same way, the Nobel Prize winner casts us into her hypnotic, many-voiced narrative set in the 17th century in a nation yet unformed. . . . We’re beguiled from the opening sentence: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The speaker is Florens, black, barely out of childhood, a slave but literate, whose eager-to-please ways and lyrical language endear her to us and to the Virginia household of Jacob Vaark. . . . The subject of [A Mercy] is slavery, and [Morrison] brings to it, along with some of her most haunting language, elements of history and mythos. . . . A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Beloved as ‘awful human power.’ . . . This novel’s release coincides with the presidential election of Barack Obama, a shining moment in our country’s history of which Morrison’s characters can barely dream.”–Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald“Themes of slavery and grief, of women’s struggles to escape the bitterness of the captive world, are at the center of Morrison’s work. They also lie at the heart of her new novel, A Mercy, which looks to history [as in Beloved]–in this case, the 1680s and 1690s–to explore the agonies of slavery among the settlers of the New World. Such a description makes Morrison’s novel sound far too pat, however; it slights the poetry and breadth of her work. Yes, A Mercy is about slavery, but in the most universal sense, meaning the limits we place on ourselves as well as the confinements we suffer at the hands of others. . . . [It is] a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called [Morrison’s] ‘noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.’ The story assumes even greater metaphorical power at this particular moment, with the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president.”–Judith Freeman, Los Angeles Times Book Review “[Morrison is] a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. . . . In A Mercy, a 17th-century American farmer–who lives near a town wink-and-nudgingly called Milton–enriches himself by dabbling in the rum trade and builds an ostentatious, oversize new house, for which he orders up a fancy wrought-iron gate, ornamented with twin copper serpents . . . [A Mercy] is [Morrison’s] deepest excavation into America’s history, to a time when the South had just passed laws that ‘separated and protected all whites from all others forever,’ and the North had begun persecuting people accused of witchcraft. . . . [A Mercy] isn’t a polemic–does anybody really need to be persuaded that exploitation is evil?–but a tragedy in which ‘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.’ . . . No character in the novel is wholly evil . . . Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. . . . Everyone in A Mercy is damaged; a few, once in a while, find strength to act out of love, or at least out of mercy–that is, when those who have the power to do harm decide not to exercise it. A negative virtue, but perhaps more lasting than love. . . . The landscape of A Mercy is full of both beauties and terrors: snow ‘sugars’ eyelashes, yet icicles hang like ‘knives’ . . . But whatever the glories and rigors of nature may signify to the civilized, for these characters, living in the midst of it, nature doesn’t signify. It’s simply to be embraced or dreaded–like the people with whom they have to live. In Morrison’s latest version of pastoral, it’s only mercy or the lack of it that makes the American landscape heaven or hell, and the gates of Eden open both ways at once.”–David Gates, The New York Times Book Review (cover) “Morrison’s short, magisterial new novel testifies to the art of a writer able to conjure near-unimaginable lives sunk three centuries ago in the infant American colonies . . . In the women of A Mercy, Morrison returns to the meaning of human identity, its relationship to community and the making and sundering of both. These questions glint under the pressure slavery weighs on the New World. . . . A Mercy is threaded with dreams and fever, sickness and ghosts, menstrual blood and afterbirth–its authenticity lies quite apart from archaeology. But that authenticity gathers over the accumulation of pages, and final chapter . . . stings with revelation. Morrison flings us into a dread past. But A Mercy pulls us, shuddering, onto the banks of meaning.”–Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain DealerA Mercy captures the same crazy magic of Song of Solomon and Beloved, Morrison’s most haunting, lyrical books. One doesn’t read them so much as go digging for truths past tight and buried deep in Morrison’s words. In part, it is the sheer mental work–the close reading, the flipping back and forth between passages–that makes her novels so satisfying. By the end, one feels as if one has cracked a code. Or seen the light.”–Maggie Galehouse, Houston Chronicle“Three stars. Shimmering, even beautiful . . . A slim, somber fever dream of a novel, Morrison’s [A Mercy] belies the tenderness of its title. Set in the 1680s, her tale unfolds in the harsh northern climes of an emergent America. Here, on Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark’s isolated homestead, Vaark’s mail-order wife and three female slaves struggle against great hardships while forming shifting alliances that serve as the novel’s sole flickers of redemption. . . . A Mercy abounds in near-biblical power and grace.”–Adriana Leshko, People“Astonishing . . . A Mercy has both X-ray eyes and telepathic powers, not to mention tree rings, ice caps, pottery clocks, carbon clouds, a long memory, and a short fuse. It dreams its way back to 1682 and a primeval America before racial hierarchies had been chiseled in stone . . . when ordinary men and women hoped that courage alone would prove enough to win dominion over their rude lives. The Dutch-born farmer and trader Jacob Vaark . . . will take Florens, a little black girl in silly shoes, as partial payment of a debt . . . What happens to ‘love-disabled’ Florens on Jacob’s farm . . . is not a sentimental education. Nevertheless, illegally literate, Florens will write it down for us to read aloud: ‘My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done,’ she says. But it does. Like Pecola, Sula, Sethe, Consolata, Violet, and so many other women we’ve met in Morrison’s pages, Florens is a siren, pulling brave hearts overboard. . . . All adds up to a sensuous omniscience that is practically Elizabethan.”–John Leonard, Harper’s Magazine“Memorable . . . lyrical . . . A miraculous tale of sorrow and beauty. . . . It is 1682 in Maryland. The slave and rum trades are dying in droves from European diseases, and most women live ‘of and for men’ . . . But this place and time is also full of miracles and mercies . . . American history, the natural world, and human desire collide in a series of musical voices, distinct from one another–unmistakably Morrisonian in their beauty and power–that together tell this moving and morally complicated tale.”–Pam Houston, O, The Oprah Magazine“Toni Morrison mines the epic themes of race and class, love and friendship, oppression and freedom–this time through the rarely told tales of early colonists and the black slaves with whom they lived. [A Mercy] is a page-turner, riveting and complex.”–Marilyn Milloy, AARP Magazine“Eerily resonant . . . A slender novel that plunges resoundingly into the pre-history of black America to tell the interlocking stories of three slavewomen and their mistress, [A Mercy] is as linguistically rich and emotionally wrenching as [Morrison’s] best work . . . The novel is an extended consideration of the many ways in which people deliberately or unconsciously assert ownership over each other: spouses, lovers, mothers and children. . . . What Morrison is out to demonstrate is that slavery of any kind, even the enslavement in passion, is dangerous to the soul. . . . The horror of the central tragedy in A Mercy–the mother forced to choose between her children–is not limited to the world of slavery. It can be, and it has been, imagined in virtually any totalitarian setting: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, Darfur. (Is slavery not a crude form of totalitarianism?) Likewise, there is surely no more universalizing experience than motherhood, which unites women regardless of their origins and their circumstances.”–Ruth Franklin, The New RepublicA Mercy is a sinewy novel [that] contains passages of insight and sensuality . . . It gathers its own power: Morrison plays a tight game with the social, legal and personal connections between her chess set of characters, a game in which each word–and every detail–counts. . . . Morrison renders the ugly beautiful and the unimaginable real: she is a fine teacher.”–Heather Thompson, The Times Literary Supplement “Toni Morrison’s books are epics of the failure of the country’s conscience. [With A Mercy,] she goes back further in history than her most searing and poetic novel, Beloved, to look at the foundations of slavery in an America ‘before it was America.’ The chances for mercy to thrive in a new land are weighed on a small farm in New York. Four women who were acquired by farmer-turned-trader Jacob Vaark in various ways have forged an unlikely family . . . [Vaark’s] farm is a small collective of every type of servitude possible years before the country turned exclusively and implacably to the enslavement of black Africans. . . . While the women are definitely the center of A Mercy, Morrison offers a more complicated portrayal of a white male in Jacob Vaark. An orphan himself, Jacob has a tendency to collect strays . . . Like a dream deferred, if a mercy is hidden too long, it tends to explode–as Morrison shows in her knockout final monologue. It’s a spare, dark fable–and at under 200 pages, a swift, kaleidoscopic trip into tragedy.”–Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor“Within [its] elegant structure, [A Mercy] returns to the great theme of [Morrison’s] Pulitzer Prize—winning Beloved: slavery and its tar pit of historical, political, and emotional implications. . . . A Mercy has the intimacy and speed of a chamber piece while still being impressively dense, like a small valise packed with enough outfits for a month in the country. It parses sometimes surprisingly fine distinctions between master and slave, male and female, black and white (and brown). . . . Above all, A Mercy brims with the omnipresence of the author’s questing, sifting brain, which the reader can feel injecting each strand of the story, subjecting it to the closest scrutiny before weaving it into the whole. The result is both a compelling yarn and a meditation on the varieties and degrees of enslavement and liberation; it is as precise, taut and tough-minded as Morrison herself.”–Kevin Nance, Poets & Writers (cover story) “Stunning . . . A Mercy deserves to be counted alongside some of [Morrison’s] most acclaimed novels, such as Sula and Beloved. The stories in A Mercy are as layered and contested as the barely mapped topology traversed by its characters. Set in the 1680s, when this country’s reliance on slavery as an economic engine was just beginning, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother’s desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master's debt. . . . Readers familiar with Morrison’s work will recognize its quietly chilling evocations of the supernatural and depictions of powerful relationships among women. A bride and her new husband’s female servant eye each other with suspicion that mellows into genuine mutual affection. A motherless child clings painfully to a childless mother. Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, beginning and ending with the devil’s bargain referred to in the title and explained in the novel’s devastating conclusion.”–Neda Ulaby, NPR“Toni Morrison’s short and forceful new novel unfolds in a primeval 17th-century America, before the familiar, invidious social institutions have taken root. Here, in a richly evoked land of plenty [where] a high-minded farmer named Jacob Vaark briefly presides over a small, peaceable kingdom of multiethnic lost souls and orphans. . . . Strangely beautiful and bittersweet.”–Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly“Toni Morrison continues to delve into the reverberations of slavery, motherhood, sacrifice and identity she wrote about in Beloved. Yet in her new novel, A Mercy, she draws a closer connection between how the past continues to be part of the present and the future. . . . Readers will be buoyed by the power and beauty of Morrison’s words and will need a breath to absorb the timely implications of her stories about class, greed and intolerance. . . . Toni Morrison gives us another layered vision of the complicated character of America and how we survive.”–Susanna Bullock, St. Louis Post-Dispatch“Powerful . . . Morrison’s prose is richly lyrical, compressed, intense. . . . Pulsing life [has been] imparted to her characters and the wholly convincing world they inhabit. . . . [The narrator] Florens and the blacksmith [she loves] generate much of the drama in A Mercy, and much of the thematic punch, too. Abandoned and betrayed as a child, Florens is a slave enslaved by love–love for a free man who warns her, ‘Own yourself, woman’ . . . Her lover’s advice [can be thought of] as a shout across the centuries. This is what Toni Morrison has achieved: She has made the fate of her characters seem like an echo, far off yet distinct, of our own fate.”–Adam Begley, New York Observer“[A Mercy] reads like the ur-text for all [Morrison’s] previous fiction. Coincidentally or not, it also offers a bookend to a historic presidential candidacy that has prompted talk of a ‘post-racial’ society. A Mercy examines what might be called a ‘pre-racial’ America, the formative years at the end of the 17th century when our forebears still had a chance of turning their collective backs against slavery . . . [The narrator] Florens’ strange diction and obsession with the [man] she loves weave hypnotically through the book. . . . Morrison vaults over America’s legacy of victimizing women and minorities to claim the more provocative turf that infuses much of her fiction. A Mercy tracks the beginnings of a system of oppression by focusing on the psychology of that oppression. . . . Powerful . . . Poetic.”–Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times“Compelling . . . [A Mercy] slyly probes the roots of American class and race resentment, and posits a plausible creation myth for our enduring culture war. A Mercy unfolds, Rashomon—style, from various points of view across multiple time frames. Primary narrator Florens, a young slave in 1680s Maryland, has been sent to fetch a free African blacksmith who was once employed by her farm master, Dutch-English émigré Jacob Vaark, and with whom she’s smitten. Florens’ perilous journey is contextualized by individual chapters told from the perspectives of [the other residents of Vaark’s farm] . . . Their ruminations reveal a melting pot seasoned with a moral certitude and social withdrawal from the start. . . . [The novel’s] power is in Morrison’s fluid, compassionate synthesis of the plight of her band of outcasts, who come together but never quite cohere. Four stars.”–Mark Holcomb, Time Out New York“Toni Morrison, the most important novelist of the last quarter century, is still writing about life’s journeys: gut-wrenching pain, sun-scraping triumph, and all the gunk in between . . . A Mercy [is] a surprisingly tender story of a mother and daughter . . . It’s like a spiritual prequel to Beloved.”–Sean Fennessey, Vibe “Luminous, virtuosic . . . A gripping story that shows the author at the height of her magical-realist powers. Morrison makes us sense unearthly visions in slavery’s grimmest origins, in mother’s love’s power of sacrifice and in the gamut of moralities that enabled some in the 18th century to subscribe to human bondage and others to reject it.”–Celia McGee, Town & Country“Toni Morrison gives a different narrator to each chapter of [A Mercy], and the effect is of a circling collage that cumulatively forms a picture of pre-Revolutionary America. It’s a daring, well-wrought concept . . . A Mercy does not contain a lot of pages, but they are dense with meaning and the pain of a group of disparate lives robbed of any kind of momentum, perhaps because Morrison’s real subject is the birth of a new land, already corrupt in its cradle.”–Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post “In the 17th century, this country was a wild confederation of colonies. . . . Fear and danger were matched only by the force of determined survival. To describe this world requires more than mere words, to live among society’s most downtrodden survivors takes more than strength. To do this takes a powerful guide, a writer like Toni Morrison, whose gift takes us into this world with A Mercy. Morrison has perhaps delivered her greatest book yet, a book so pared down to its essence that each staccato harmony passes by in an instant but resonates long after. She drops us into a place of darkness and uncertainty, slowly unfolding character and story, ever aware of a parallel spirit world and a chorus of voices following behind. . . . Morrison is a writer with a rare gift for words that is only matched by her subtlety of plot. Her complex characters allow for a painful intimacy . . . [A Mercy is] an unforgettable and marking experience.”–Adera Causey, Chattanooga Free Press“A triumph . . . In [A Mercy,] Morrison takes you to a dark world in which women, White or Black, have little power. In the American wilderness of the late 1600s, danger has many faces. . . . Gorgeously written and haunted.”–The Arizona Republic“[A Mercy] returns to the subject of slavery, [which Morrison] has already mined with exquisite power. . . . [Here] she probes the machine of slavery itself–the routine acts of closing deals and settling debts by buying or selling human beings . . . Morrison narrates the ways in which race, gender and class continue to color our reading of slavery. She peers beneath the surface of the machine to reveal its murky underpinnings in religious disputes. She reminds us that although grace is unmerited favor and that a mercy is an unmitigated blessing, it is no easy feat to understand or even read about the consequences of either.”–Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Ms.“In this brutal, well-crafted story, Morrison offers a nuanced explanation of a mercy that forgives those who enslave us, both literally and emotionally.”–Christina Saratsis, Marie Claire“Florens is eight years old when she is sold away from her mother and sixteen when she speaks the intriguing first lines of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ . . . Each character is as precisely, lovingly drawn as those in Beloved. . . . This is a book to read twice. First: eagerly, heart-in-your-throat, in desperation for the wrenching finale. Second: slowly, lingering over Morrison’s prose, which is probably the closest thing to true poetry you will find in a modern novel . . . Our reaction to this newest historical novel by the Nobel laureate is not, ‘What a shame this happened to these long-dead, not-quite-real people, but ‘This could have been me walking barefoot through a forest, giving birth on a riverbank.’ . . . A Mercy not only belongs on all of next year’s literary prize shortlists, but on the bookshelf of all those who consider themselves serious students of American history.”–Stephanie Eve Boone, The Buffalo News “Toni Morrison’s great gift is to blend the exotic and supernatural with the homely and realistic. No character in a Morrison novel is too meager to glisten with the magical dust of myth, legend, fairy tale and folklore. A Mercy dives straight to the core of the American myth. . . . Morrison has written a lean, poetic book that is compacted with secrets and desires. Like the story itself, her language is alternately spare and lush, often hopeful.”–Catherine Holmes, The Charleston Post and Courier “[Morrison] subtly exposes contradictions that have been part of the American dream from the outset. If Beloved was written in a prophet’s voice, A Mercy is the work of an elderly sage. Set in the late 1600s along the Eastern Seaboard, Morrison’s novel centers on the farm of an upwardly mobile immigrant, Jacob Vaark [who] acquires a young slave named Florens in exchange for a debt. . . . Vaark’s world may be the narrative stage throughout, but the stories drift, Faulkner-like, through the different perspectives of the characters, especially Florens. Morrison returns in the end to the transaction that gave Florens to Vaark, and in a moving climax recasts the coldness of the men’s negotiation as a mother’s gesture of love–the title’s displaced mercy. . . . The poignancy [of this moment] gets elevated by Morrison’s terse theological critique: ‘It was not a miracle. Bestowed by god. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.’ Slavery, needless to say, was flourishing in an overtly Christian society, and in this staccato judgment Morrison damns religion with its own best language. . . . A Mercy achieves a vivid sense of time and place. . . . A wise, compelling novel whose hopeful title is hard-won and shadowed hard by threats that are all too familiar.”–Todd Shy, Raleigh News & Observer“Always engaging and lyrically written . . . I like being kept off center [by Morrison’s novels], the text luring me in, slowly, sinuously revealing mysteries and connections, one elaborate revelation after another. We’re in Virginia in 1690 in this sumptuously written novel, with its images from dreams, folklore, visions, confrontations and incidents, amid a lush but dangerous wilderness . . . Morrison explores in luminous detail all of [her] characters’ attitudes, hopes, terrors and frustrations. . . . Such a brief review must give short shrift to Morrison’s rich prose, the lucid and poetic densities of her sentences and images. This textual depth is more than half the fun of all her books, seducing us with almost musical tones into the dark mysteries of the human heart in our dark land of black and white.”–Sam Coale, The Providence Journal “More tone poem than unabashed fiction, [A Mercy is] a series of emotional episodes revealing an ugly portrait of this country’s earliest days. . . . Through it all is the very human ability to survive, to endure unimaginable pain. . . . Morrison’s prose makes it impossible to wallow in the story’s obvious misery. . . . Her world [is] a savage realm that retains some beauty thanks to the author’s staggering gifts.”–Christian Toto, The Denver Post “Breathtaking . . . Beguiling . . . Fast-moving and poignant. . . . By concentrating on the denizens of one homestead, Morrison is able to limn the entire disorder of early America. It’s one of the reasons this short novel is so powerful–Morrison’s deep and sympathetic focus on a handful of lives. Each chapter concentrates on one character, and as the book unfolds, the story is revealed, slowly, with magisterial grace. The end result is satisfying and stirring. . . . The strength of A Mercy is Morrison’s lucid eye, her uncanny ability to create character studies that are memorable and that, through her lapidary approach, tell a tale that is profound and important. In her hands, character is story. . . . Like William Faulkner, Toni Morrison has honed a personal experimental style that pays great attention to rhythm and diction. Like Faulkner, she is understated and cerebral while creating gothic grotesqueries in an agrarian setting. A Mercy, for all its brevity, will be celebrated and discussed along with Morrison’s best work.”–Corey Mesler, Memphis Flyer Online“Reaching back to 1682 on the Atlantic coast of America, Morrison describes a dangerous Eden, a simmering, pungent stew of Angolan slaves, transplanted London guttersnipes, Portuguese plantation owners, Dutch traders and the pox-ridden remnants of original peoples. . . . Morrison’s lush prose has always had a mesmeric quality . . . The music and mystery of [her] language is still abundant.”–Janice P. Nimura, Newsday“Smooth and alluring . . . There is hardship, injustice and misery [in A Mercy]. But there is also hope and beauty–and mercy, in the face of wrenching choices. And there is the poetic vibrance of Morrison’s writing, especially in the voice of the semiliterate Florens. . . . She lasts, as do the other characters in A Mercy–they are a window into our past, and also into our present.”–Lisa McLendon, The Wichita Eagle “As evocative and haunting as Beloved . . . Morrison recently told National Public Radio that she sought in this novel to ‘remove race from slavery.’ . . . By reminding us that many white Americans also can trace their ancestry back to people who were enslaved, Morrison has deepened our understanding of human history and the complex legacy of slavery in America.”–Emily Seelbinder, The Charlotte Observer “I loved it. A Mercy is tender, brutal, quiet and urgent, with a cast of characters that will make you forget you’re reading a novel. . . . If you’re looking for a short novel that will, at the end, make you want to turn around and experience it again, get A Mercy and sacrifice some time. You won’t be sorry.”–Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Philadelphia Tribune“Like Armstrong hitting the mountain stages, [Toni Morrison] is in the ‘zone.’ . . . There are an infinite number of stories in [A Mercy], 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. . . . One of her great skills is her uncanny ear; every voice is unique, simultaneously sounding like both past and present. . . . 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.”–Elinor Teele, California Literary Review“In 1690, Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark . . . reluctantly decides to accept a young slave girl, Florens, as partial compensation [for a debt]. Taken from her baby brother and her mother, who thinks that giving up her daughter to a kinder slave owner is an act of mercy, Florens finds herself in the midst of a community of women striving to understand their burdens of sorrow and grief and to discover the mercies of love. Much as she did in Paradise, Morrison hauntingly weaves the stories of these women into a colorful tale of loss, despair, hope, and love. . . . Magical, mystical, and memorable, Morrison’s poignant parable of mercies hidden and revealed belongs in every library.”–Henry L. Carrigan, Library Journal (starred)“Nobel laureate Morrison returns more explicitly to the net of pain cast by slavery, a theme she detailed so memorably in Beloved. Set at the close of the 17th century, [A Mercy] details America’s untoward foundation: dominion over Native Americans, indentured workers, women and slaves. A slave at a plantation in Maryland offers up her daughter, Florens, to a relatively humane Northern farmer, Jacob, as debt payment from their owner. The ripples of this choice spread to the inhabitants of Jacob’s farm, populated by women with intersecting and conflicting desires. . . . Morrison’s lyricism infuses the shifting voices of her characters as they describe a brutal society being forged in the wilderness. Morrison’s unflinching narrative is all the more powerful for its relative brevity; it takes hold of the reader and doesn’t let go until the wrenching final-page crescendo.”–Publishers Weekly (starred)“Brilliant . . . Riveting, even poetic. . . . The time is the late 1600s, when what will become the U.S. remains a chain of colonies along the Atlantic coast. Not only does slavery still exist, it is a thriving industry that translates into plenty of business for lots of people. . . . [Morrison] has shown a partiality for the ‘chorus’ method of storytelling, wherein a group of individuals who are involved in a single event or incident tell their versions of what happened, the individual voices maintaining their distinctiveness while their personal tales overlap each other with a layering effect that gives Morrison’s prose its resonance and deep sheen of enameling. Here the voices belong to the women associated with Virginia planter Jacob Vaark . . . these women include the long-suffering Rebekka, his wife; Lina and Sorrow, slave women with unique perspectives on the events taking place on Vaark’s plantation; and Florens, a slave girl whom Vaark accepts as partial payment on a debt and whose separation from her mother is the pivotal event around which Morrison weaves her short but deeply involving story. A fitting companion to her highly regarded Beloved.”–Brad Hooper, Booklist (starred)“Abandonment, betrayal and loss are the themes of this latest exploration of America’s morally compromised history from Morrison. All of the characters she sets down in the colonial landscape circa 1690 are bereft, none more evidently so than Florens, 16-year-old slave of Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka. . . . Jacob reluctantly took Florens in settlement of a debt from a Maryland landowner. Her own mother offered her–so as not to be traded with Florens’ infant brother, the girl thinks. (The searing final monologue reveals it was not so simple.) Florens joined a household of misfits somewhere in the North. Jacob was a poor orphan who came to America to make a new start; Rebekka’s parents essentially sold her to him to spare themselves her upkeep. . . . They take in others similarly devastated. Lina, raped by a ‘Europe,’ has been cast out by her Native American tribe. Mixed-race Sorrow survived a shipwreck only to be made pregnant by her rescuer . . . Willard and Scully are indentured servants, farmed out to Jacob by their contract holders, who keep fraudulently extending their time. . . . America was founded on the involuntary servitude of blacks and whites, [and] the colonies are rife with people who belong nowhere else and anxiously strive to find something to hold onto in the New World. [With] gorgeous language and a powerful understanding of the darkest regions of the human heart . . . this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own luster to the Nobel Laureate’s shimmering body of work.”–Kirkus Reviews“An intimate, insightful, and surprisingly relevant look at the ties that bind us in relationships.”–Good Housekeeping “Morrison’s storytelling genius is fully blooming in A Mercy, told from the viewpoints of a number of characters, the most significant being Florens, a young black slave. . . . Morrison creates a magical voice for Florens that lifts readers up on a swirling arc of prose, which makes all [her] despair and heartbreak almost tolerable. Florens could be describing how Morrison captivates her readers when she says ‘I can never not have you have me.’”–Vick Mickunas, Dayton Daily News “The fact that readers will be astonished by what they discover [in 17th-century Virginia] is a testament to how different that world was from our own, and also to the author’s uncanny gift for inhabiting the nuances of place, character and situation. . . . Morrison weaves a rich tangle of human stories and interactions . . . [She has created] a world filled with wonder that we have to piece together for ourselves, out of the characters’ wildly divergent partial impressions and imperfect understandings. By requiring this act of imagination from her readers, Morrison enriches the experience and brings it closer in, sometimes so close it seems to jump off the page.”–Peter Magnani, San Jose Mercury News “[Morrison] negotiates the twisted intersection of race, class and gender in America better and more fully than any writer has ever done. A Mercy, continues this journey, following the tangled threads of our history all the way back to the beginning, when the very idea of America was still struggling to be born. The result is Morrison’s best novel since Beloved. . . . Using her trademark kaleidoscopic approach, Morrison allows [her] characters to unspool their unique stories [which] succeed in depicting complicated, conflicted beings. . . . The overarching lesson of A Mercy is that history is not foreordained. In an ending that both echoes and diverges from the infanticide hanging over Beloved, we watch another mother make a very different and more hopeful choice regarding her daughter’s fate. In its repeated insistence that such choice is possible, A Mercy not only transcends a monolithic and static view of slavery, racism and the American past. It also pays homage to our collective power to imagine a better future.”–Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel“Achingly beautiful . . . A Mercy reads like poetry, with vivid descriptions and emotional dialogue. . . . It is full of sorrow, sacrifice and pain. But it ends with a ray of light, a description of the ultimate mercy.”–Laura L. Hutchinson, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star “Morrison is a woman whose stories find transcendence in even the darkest periods of history. Her latest novel, A Mercy, casts an unflinching eye on slave trade in the 17th century. It’s heartbreaking, luminous, and a solemn reminder of our nation’s history.”–RedbookA Mercy takes on slavery in its infancy and reveals what lies beneath the surface. It’s an ambivalent and disturbing story, sparingly written, including rejection, abandonment and acts of mercy with unforeseen consequences.”–Ebony“Morrison is as good as her many awards say. . . . Her use of language . . . makes you feel the emotion of the characters, demanding understanding and sympathy, not letting you avoid it with the explanation ‘it’s only a story.’ A Mercy is an outstanding addition to Morrison’s list, probably destined for the next ‘best work of American fiction poll’ in 2020.”–Sacramento Book Review

Awards

WINNER 2008 Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Spellbinding. . . . Dazzling. . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph.”
The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's searing new novel about the trauma of living in colonial America during the birth of the slave trade.

About the Guide

Set in the 1680s, in the early stages of the slave trade, A Mercy gives voice to a remarkable group of characters: Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch farmer, trader, and lender; his wife, Rebekka, newly arrived from England; their servant woman, the Native American Lina, whose tribe has been wiped out by smallpox; Florens, the slave girl he reluctantly accepts as payment for a bad loan; and the permanently shipwrecked Sorrow, daughter of a sea captain killed in a storm off the coast of the Carolinas. These characters take turns narrating the story, and their voices carry the physical and emotional scars of the struggles of their lives.

A Mercy is a visceral, intricately textured novel that takes readers right to the origins of America, a place where the seeds of the racial, religious, and class tensions that would later come to fruition in revolution and civil war were already being sown. It is a place where people are forced to make wrenching decisions. Jacob does not wish to take a slave as payment for a bad debt, but he feels it's the best option available. Nor does he wish to traffic in slavery—he prides himself on his honest work—though he is willing to make huge profits off the slave labor of sugar plantations in Barbados. Florens's mother does not want to part with her daughter, but feels that Florens will be better off with Jacob than with her own cruel master. Rebekka knows that even as a white woman, the only choices open to her are wife, servant, and prostitute. Florens, Lina, and Sorrow, who are servants, know that if both their master and mistress die, their already circumscribed choices will disappear completely and they will be fair game for anyone. This is a world in which women—white, black, and Native American—are especially vulnerable, literally at the mercy of the men who hold power over them.

But A Mercy is as much a novel of experience as ideas, and it is the vividness and immediacy of these characters that makes the novel so powerful. These are voices that have not been heard before, voices silenced first by cruelty and then by history.

In A Mercy they are free to speak at last.

About the Author

Toni Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities, Emerita, at Princeton University. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in Rockland County, New York, and Princeton, New Jersey.

Discussion Guides

1. Florens addresses her story to the blacksmith she loves and writes: "You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle" [p. 3]. In what sense is her story a confession? What are the dreamlike "curiosities" it is filled with?

2. Florens writes to the blacksmith, "I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me" [p. 6], and later, "Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unloved here" [p. 8]. In what ways is Florens's use of language strikingly eccentric and poetic? What does the way she speaks and writes reveal about who she is and what her experience has been?

3. What does A Mercy reveal about Colonial America that is startling and new? In what ways does Morrison give this period in our history an emotional depth that cannot be found in textbooks?

4. A Mercy is told primarily through the distinctive narrative voices of Florens, Lina, Jacob, Rebekka, Sorrow, and, lastly, Florens's mother. What do these characters reveal about themselves through the way they speak? What are the advantages of such a multivocal narrative over one told through a single voice?

5. Jacob Vaark is reluctant to traffic in human flesh and determined to amass wealth honestly, without "trading his conscience for coin" [p. 32]. How does he justify making money from trading sugar produced by slave labor in Barbados? What larger point is Morrison making here?

6. How does Jacob's attitude toward his slaves/workers differ from that of the farmer who owns Florens's mother?

7. When Rebekka falls ill, Lina treats her with a mixture of herbs: devil's bit, mugwort, Saint-John's-wort, maidenhair, and periwinkle. She also considers "repeating some of the prayers she learned among the Presbyterians, but since none had saved Sir, she thought not" [p. 59]. What fundamental differences are suggested here between the practical, earth-based healing knowledge of Lina and the more ethereal prayers of the Presbyterians? What larger role does healing play in the novel?

8. Rebekka knows that even as a white woman, her prospects are limited to "servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest" [p. 91]. And Lina, Sorrow, and Florens know that if their mistress dies, "three unmastered women … out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone" [p. 68]. What does the novel as a whole reveal about the precarious position of women, European and African, free and enslaved, in late-seventeenth-century America?

9. Rebekka says she does not fear the violence in the colonies-the occasional skirmishes and uprisings-because it is so much less horrifying and pervasive than the violence in her home country of England. In what ways is "civilized" England more savage than "savage" America?

10. What role does the love story between Florens and the blacksmith play in the novel? Why does the blacksmith tell Florens that she is "a slave by choice" [p. 167]?

11. When Florens asks for shelter on her journey to find the blacksmith, she is taken in by a Christian widow and her apparently "possessed" daughter Jane, whose soul she is trying to save by whipping her. And Rebekka experiences religion, as practiced by her mother, as "a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred" [p. 86]. How are Christians depicted in the novel? How do they regard Florens, and black people generally?

12. Lina tells Florens, "We never shape the world... The world shapes us" [p. 83]. What does she mean? In what ways are the main characters in the novel more shaped by than shapers of the world they inhabit?

13. Why does Florens's mother urge Jacob to take her? Why does she consider his doing so a mercy? What does her decision say about the conditions in which she and so many others like her were forced to live?

14. The sachem of Lina's tribe says of the Europeans: "Cut loose from the earth's soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples" [p. 64]. To what extent is this an accurate assessment? In what ways is A Mercy about the condition of being orphaned? What is the literal and symbolic significance of being orphaned or abandoned in the novel?

15. Why does Morrison choose to end the novel in the voice of Floren' s mother? How does the ending alter or intensify all that has come before it?

16. Why is it important to have a visceral, emotional grasp of what life was like, especially for Africans, Native Americans, and women, in Colonial America? In what ways has American culture tried to forget or whitewash this history?

17. Did you see the stunning twist at the novel's conclusion coming? If so, when and why? If not, why do you think it blindsided you?

18. How do the stories of the women in A Mercy serve as a prequel to the stories of the women in Beloved, which is set two centuries later?

Suggested Readings

Toni Morrison, Beloved; Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; Valerie Martin, Property; Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty; Madison Smartt Bell, All Souls' Rising; William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner; Richard Wright, Black Boy.
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Toni Morrison reads from her remarkable new novel A Mercy

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