A Mercy


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In the s 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. 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. Mercy alternates between Florens' first-person narrative and third-person chapters detailing the other characters' present and past. It's a short novel, almost a novella, but even in its brevity, Morrison creates a passionate, well-textured world. Tragedy looms behind every moment; given the time period and the predominately wilderness setting, it would be unrealistic otherwise. But there's also a tenuous thread of survival connecting each narrative, a feeling of progression that builds as the story moves to its conclusion.

A Mercy is as haunted by the living as it is by the dead; it's full of people struggling to anchor themselves against the vagaries of circumstance. In the end, whether they succeed is open to interpretation. The A. 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 and a primeval America before racial hierarchies had been chiseled in stone.

The Dutch-born farmer and trader Jacob Vaark. But it does. All adds up to a sensuous omniscience that is practically Elizabethan. A miraculous tale of sorrow and beauty. It is in Maryland.

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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. 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. 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. Four women who were acquired by farmer-turned-trader Jacob Vaark in various ways have forged an unlikely family. 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. 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.

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A Mercy Summary | GradeSaver

It parses sometimes surprisingly fine distinctions between master and slave, male and female, black and white and brown. 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. The stories in A Mercy are as layered and contested as the barely mapped topology traversed by its characters. A motherless child clings painfully to a childless mother. 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.

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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. Toni Morrison gives us another layered vision of the complicated character of America and how we survive. Pulsing life [has been] imparted to her characters and the wholly convincing world they inhabit. 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.

A Mercy tracks the beginnings of a system of oppression by focusing on the psychology of that oppression. A Mercy unfolds, Rashomon— style, from various points of view across multiple time frames. Their ruminations reveal a melting pot seasoned with a moral certitude and social withdrawal from the start. Four stars. A Mercy [is] a surprisingly tender story of a mother and daughter.

A gripping story that shows the author at the height of her magical-realist powers. Fear and danger were matched only by the force of determined survival. 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. 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 s, danger has many faces. Gorgeously written and haunted. 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.

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. 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. Bestowed by god. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. A Mercy achieves a vivid sense of time and place.

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