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Harper's Magazine
Friday, October 30th, 2009
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A Mercy (Vintage International)

by Toni Morrison

A Mercy

A review by John Leonard

Rebekkah, who has fled her hateful family and the ferocious Christian sectarianism of seventeenth-century England for marriage to a stranger in the New World wilderness of Mary's Land, has reason to wonder after so much silence, absence, vacancy, and death: "I don't think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don't think He knows about us." Maybe not. But Toni Morrison most certainly does. Her astonishing new novel, A Mercy (Vintage, $15.00), 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 "blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes -- freedmen, slaves and indentured" still made common cause against the local gentry; when orphans, strays, "waifs and whelps" banded together in makeshift families against crows, wolves, weather, and cruelty; when ordinary men and women hoped that courage alone would prove enough to win dominion over their own rude lives.

The Dutch-born farmer and trader Jacob Vaark, husband to Rebekkah, will take Florens, a little black girl in silly shoes, as partial payment of a debt owed to him by a despicable Portuguese trader in human flesh. He is beseeched to do so by Florens's enslaved mother, who must see something in Jacob's face: not mercy but "a mercy"; not grace but decency; not a miracle bestowed by God but a favor or indulgence volunteered by a fellow human being. What happens to "love-disabled" Florens on Jacob's farm -- along with Lina, who caws with birds, chats with plants, sings to cows, and drinks rain; vixen-eyed, black-toothed, slow- witted Sorrow, rescued from opium sleep and the sea by mermaids and whales; the woodsmen Willard and Scully, indentured into servitude forever; the freedman blacksmith who might save the farm from pox if Florens can find him in time; and Rebekkah, a pillar of grief -- 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.

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. The whiplash lyricism: widows and raisins, mugwort and periwinkle, pine sap and cornhusk dolls, "the horror of color, the roar of soundlessness and the menace of familiar objects lying still." Somehow all add up to a sensuous omniscience that is practically Elizabethan.

John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.


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