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A mercy
2008
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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 mayb Excerpted from A Mercy by Toni Morrison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

The Greeks might have invented the pastoral, the genre in which the rustic life is idealized by writers who don't have to live it, but it's found its truest home in America. To Europeans of the so-called Age of Discovery, the whole North American continent seemed a sort of Edenic rod and gun club, and their descendants here still haven't gotten over their obsession with the pure primal landscapes they despoil with their own presence. A straight line - if only spiritually - runs from Fenimore Cooper's wild Adirondacks and Hawthorne's sinister Massachusetts forests to Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" to Cheevers domesticated locus amoenus of Shady Hill to the theme park in George Saunders's pointedly titled "Pastoralia" - where slaughtered goats are delivered to employees in Neolithic costume through a slot in the wall of their cave, much as Big Macs appear at a drive-through window. The line even leads to "Naked Lunch," which pronounces America "old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians" - simply a calculated blasphemy. Apply enough ironic backspin, and almost any American novel this side of "Bright Lights, Big City" could be called "American Pastoral." Or for that matter, "Paradise Lost." Toni Morrison has already used the title "Paradise" for the 1998 novel that I think is her weakest. But it would have been a good fit for her new book, "A Mercy," which reveals her, once more, as a conscious inheritor of America's pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. Her two greatest novels, "Song of Solomon" and "Beloved" render the rural countryside so evocatively that you can smell the earth; even in the urban novel "Jazz," the most memorable images are of the South its characters have left behind. But Morrison, of course, is African-American, and hers is a distinctly postcolonial pastoral: a career-long refutation of Robert Frost's embarrassing line "The land was ours before we were the land's." The plantation called Sweet Home, in "Beloved," is neither sweet to its slaves nor home to anyone, except the native Miamis, of whom nothing is left but their burial mounds. 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: when the gate is closed, their heads meet to form a blossom. The farmer, Jacob Vaark, thinks he's creating an earthly paradise, but Lina, his Native American slave, whose forced exposure to Presbyterianism has conveniently provided her with a Judeo-Christian metaphor, feels as if she's "entering the world of the damned." In this American Eden, you get two original sins for the price of one - the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa - and it's not hard to spot the real serpents: those creatures Lina calls "Europes," men whose "whitened" skins make them appear on first sight to be "ill or dead," and whose great gifts to the heathens seem to be smallpox and a harsh version of Christianity with "a dull, unimaginative god." Jacob is as close as we get to a benevolent European. Although three bondswomen (one Native American, one African and one "a bit mongrelized") help run his farm, he refuses to traffic in slaves; the mother of the African girl, in fact, has forced her daughter on him because the girl is in danger of falling into worse hands and he seems "human." Yet Jacob's money is no less tainted than if he'd wielded a whip himself: it simply comes from slaves he doesn't have to see in person, working sugar plantations in the Caribbean. And the preposterous house he builds with this money comes to no good. It costs the lives of 50 trees (cut down, as Lina notes, "without asking their permission"), his own daughter dies in an accident during the construction, and he never lives to finish it. True, some of the white settlers are escapees from hell: Jacob's wife, Rebekka, whom he imported sight unseen from London, retains too-vivid memories of public hangings and drawings-and-quarterings. "The pile of frisky, still living entrails held before the felon's eyes then thrown into a bucket and tossed into the Thames; fingers trembling for a lost torso; the hair of a woman guilty of mayhem bright with flame." America, she figures, can hardly be worse. But even the relatively kindly Rebekka (kindly, that is, until she nearly dies of smallpox herself and gets religion) and the relatively human Jacob have that European brimstone clinging to them, and it's stinking up the place. One native sachem diagnoses their unique pathology: "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." This sounds like P.C. cant, and even Lina doubts that all Europes are Eurotrash. But the sachem's got a point. Does anybody own the earth we all inhabit as brothers and sisters? From that perspective, property really is theft, and if you don't think Europeans did the thieving, I've got $24 worth of beads I'd like to sell you. OR if Europeans aren't the only serpents in the garden - after all, "A Mercy" also implicates Africans in the slave trade - this theory, advanced by an African woman captured by rival tribesmen and shipped to Barbados, gets to the heart of the problem: "I think men thrive on insults over cattle, women, water, crops. Everything heats up and finally the men of their families burn we houses and collect those they cannot kill or find for trade." Men! You can't live with 'em and (since women "did not fell 60-foot trees, build pens, repair saddles, slaughter or butcher beef, shoe a horse or hunt") you can't live without 'em. Not to mention that old-as-Eden matter of sexual attraction. Florens, the black girl whose mother entrusted her to Jacob, and whose feeling of abandonment rules the rest of her life, falls uncontrollably in lust with a free black man, the smith who builds Jacob's gate. "The shine of water runs down your spine and I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there. I run away into the cowshed to stop this thing from happening inside me. Nothing stops it." In their last scene together, the blacksmith rejects her for being a slave - not to Jacob, but to her own desire. "You alone own me," she tells him. "Own yourself, woman," he answers. "You are nothing but wilderness. No constraint. No mind." If you've ever read a Toni Morrison novel, you can already predict that Florens does end up owning herself and that it's a bitter blessing. Her only compensation for the loss of her mother and her lover is that she comes to write her own story, carving the letters with a nail into the walls of her dead master's unfinished and abandoned house. "A Mercy" has neither the terrible passion of "Beloved" - how many times can we ask a writer to go to such a place? - nor the spirited ingenuity of "Love," the most satisfying of Morrison's subsequent novels. But it's her 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. (The book's most anxious moment comes when a little white girl goes hysterical at the sight of Florens and hides behind her witch-hunting elders.) Postcolonialists and feminists, perhaps even Greens and Marxists, may latch onto "A Mercy," but they should latch with care, lest Morrison prove too many-minded for them. This novel 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." EXCEPT for a slimy Portuguese slave trader, no character in the novel is wholly evil, and even he's more weak and contemptible than mustache-twirlingly villainous. Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. While Lina laments the nonconsensual deaths of trees, she deftly drowns a newborn baby, not, as in "Beloved," to save it from a life of slavery, but simply because she thinks the child's mother (the "mongrelized" girl who goes by the Morrisonian name of Sorrow) has already brought enough bum luck to Jacob's farmstead. 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. This oddly assorted household slaves, indentured servants and a wife shipped to her husband in exchange for payment to her family - exhibits varying degrees of freedom and dominion, and it holds together, for a while, thanks to a range of conflicting motivations. "They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone's guess. One thing was certain, courage alone would not be enough." The landscape of "A Mercy" is full of both beauties and terrors: snow "sugars" eyelashes, yet icicles hang like "knives"; a stag is a benign and auspicious apparition, yet at night "the glittering eyes of an elk could easily be a demon." But whatever the glories and the 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. A farmer thinks he's creating an earthly paradise, but his slave feels as if she's 'entering the world of the damned.' David Gates's most recent book is "The Wonders of the Invisible World," a collection of stories.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Some authors make mediocre readers, but Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison is certainly not among them. Her husky voice, lyrical rhythms and precise timing--especially of pauses within sentences or even phrases--give clarity and poignancy to her vivid metaphors and elegant prose. Set in the 1680s, this story tells of multiple forms of love and of slavery. Florens is a slave girl whose mother urges her sale to Jacob, a decent man, to save her from a rapist master. Florens feels abandoned and is finally betrayed by the lover she worships. Morrison holds the listener completely in thrall through her narrative, her characters, her language and her own fine reading. An enlightening interview with the author appears at the end. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 15). (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Summary
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.<br> <br> 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.<br> <br> 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.<br> <br> 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.<br> <br> 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.<br> <br> Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.
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