Synopses & Reviews
A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved
and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.
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. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.
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.
"Spellbinding....Dazzling....[A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph. The Washington Post Book World
"Luminous and complex....Some of Morrison's best writing in years." Time
"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
"[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,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
"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
"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
"A 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
"[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.
"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 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
"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
"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 semi-literate 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
"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
"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
"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
"Mother love: always an absolute in Morrison's fiction, a terrible swift sword. Ancestors: a religion of owls and the African slave trade. The Middle Passage: commodities trading and shark bait. The world of work: caulking and tanneries, milking and manure, squash and chickens. Tables of food: wild plums, pecans, suet pudding, baskets of strawberries, haunches of venison, roast swan. Out-of-doors: 'trees taller than a cathedral,' 'birds bigger than cows,' 'a sky vulgar with stars,' 'boneless bears in the valley,' blood on the snow." John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
(read the entire Harper's review
Nobel Prize-winning author Morrison's latest New York Times-bestselling masterpiece centers on a powerful tragedy involving a mother and daughter, and reveals how acts of mercy have unforeseen consequences.
In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark 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, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart, like Beloved, it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter-a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.
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.
Reading Group Guide
“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.
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?