Mercy (Morrison)

A Mercy
Toni Morrison, 2008
Knopf Doubleday
176 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307276766
 

Summary
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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Aka—Chloe Anthony Wofford
Birth—February 18, 1931
Where—Lorain, Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., Howard University; M.A.,  Cornell,
Awards—Nobel Prize, 1993, National Book Critics' Circle
   Award, 1977; Pulitzer Prize, 1988.
Currently—lives in Princeton, NJ and New York, NY


With her incredible string of lyrical, imaginative, and adventurous modern classics Toni Morrison lays claim to being one of America's best novelists. Race issues are at the heart of many of Morrison's most enduring novels, from the ways that white concepts of beauty affect a girl's self image in The Bluest Eye to themes of segregation in Sulu and slavery in her signature work Beloved. Through it all, Morrison relates her tales with lyrical eloquence and spellbinding mystery.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Morrison's unique approach to writing stems from a childhood spent steeped in folklore and mythology. Her family reveled in sharing these often tales, and their commingling of the fantastic and the natural would become a key element in her work when she began penning original tales of her own.

The other majorly influential factor in her writing was the racism she experienced firsthand in, as Jet magazine described it, the "mixed and sometimes hostile neighborhood" of Lorain, Ohio. When Morrison was only a toddler, her home was set afire by racists while her family was still inside of it. During times such as these, she found strength in her father, who instilled in her a great sense of dignity. This pride in her cultural background would heavily influence her debut novel.

In The Bluest Eye, an eleven-year old black girl named Pecola prays every night for blue eyes, seeing them as the epitome of feminine beauty. She believes these eyes, symbolizing commonly held white concepts of attractiveness, would put an end to her familial woes, an end to her father's excessive drinking and her brother's meandering. They would give her self-esteem and purpose. The Bluest Eye is the first of Toni Morrison's cries for racial pride and it is an auspicious debut told with an eerie poeticism.

Morrison next tackled segregation in Sulu, which chronicles the friendship between two women who, much like the author, grew up in a small, segregated village in Ohio. Song of Solomon followed. Arguably her first bona fide classic and certainly her most lyrical work, Song of Solomon breathed with the mythology of Morrison's youth, a veritable modern folktale pivoting on an eccentric whimsically named Milkman Dead who spends his life trying to fly. This is one of Morrison's most breathtaking, most accomplished and fully dimensional novels, a story of powerful convictions told in an unmistakably original manner.

In Song of Solomon, Morrison created a distinct world where the supernatural commingles comfortably with the mundane, a setting that would reappear in her masterpiece, Beloved. Beloved is a ghost story quite unlike any other, a tale of guilt and love and the horrendous legacy of slavery. Taking place not long after the end of the Civil War, Beloved finds Sethe, a former slave, being haunted by the daughter she murdered to save the child from being sold into slavery. It is a gut wrenching story that is buoyed by its fantastical plot device and the sheer beauty of Morrison's prose.

Beloved so moved Morrison's literary peers that forty-eight of them signed an open letter published in the New York Times demanding she be recognizing for this major effort. Subsequently, the book won her a Pulitzer Prize. A year after publishing her next novel Jazz in 1992, she would become the very first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Towards the end of the century, Morrison's work became increasingly eclectic. She not only published another finely crafted, incendiary novel in Paradise, which systematically tracks the genesis of an act of mob violence, but she also published her first children's book The Big Box. In 2003, she published Love, her first novel in five years, a complex meditation on family and the way one man fuels the obsessions of several women. The following year she assembled a collection of photographs of school children taken during the era of segregation. What makes Remember: The Journey to School Integration so particularly haunting is that Morrison chose to compose dialogue imagining what the subjects of each photo may have been thinking. In 2008, Morrison published A Mercy.

That imagination, that willingness to take chances, to examine history through a fresh perspective, is such an integral part of Morrison's craft. She is as vital as any contemporary artist, and her stories may focus on the black American experience, but the eloquence, imaginativeness, and meaningfulness of her writing leaps high over any racial boundaries.

Extras
• Chloe Anthony Wofford chose to publish her first novel under the name Toni Morrison because she believed that Toni was easier to pronounce than Chloe. Morrison later regretted assuming the nom de plume.

• In 1986, the first production of Morrison's sole play Dreaming Emmett was staged. The play was based on the story of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered by racists in 1955.

• Morrison's prestigious status is not limited to her revered novels or her multitude of awards. She also holds a chair at Princeton University. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
[A] small, plangent gem of a story that is, at once, a kind of prelude to Beloved and a variation on that earlier book's exploration of the personal costs of slavery…Set some 200 years before Beloved, A Mercy conjures up the beautiful, untamed, lawless world that was America in the 17th century with the same sort of lyrical, verdant prose that distinguished that earlier novel…Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


[A] spellbinding companion to Beloved…Her old themes rise up in A Mercy like a fever dream: the horrible sacrifice a mother makes to protect her child, the deadly vanity of benevolent slaveholders, the abandonment of a past too painful to remember. But this is a smaller, more delicate novel, a fusion of mystery, history and longing that stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison's body of work…Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Whereas Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


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, the book 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. Jacob's wife, Rebekka, struggles with her faith as she loses one child after another to the harsh New World. A Native servant, Lina, survivor of a smallpox outbreak, craves Florens's love to replace the family taken from her, and distrusts the other servant, a peculiar girl named Sorrow. When Jacob falls ill, all these women are threatened. 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


In this prequel to Beloved, a Catholic plantation owner satisfies a debt by offering Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark a young slave girl-whose mother hopes she will find a better life. What follows is a tale of love, disease, and the brutality of slavery.
Ann Burns - Library Journal


Abandonment, betrayal and loss are the somber themes of this latest exploration of America's morally compromised history from Morrison. All 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. Eight years earlier, Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader 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. The couple has shared love, but also sadness; all four of their offspring died in childhood. 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, who handed her over to Jacob. Willard and Scully are indentured servants, farmed out to labor for Jacob by their contract holders, who keep fraudulently extending their time. Only the free African blacksmith who helps Jacob construct his fancy new house—and who catches Florens' love-starved eye—seems whole and self-sufficient, though he eventually falls prey to Florens' raging fear of abandonment. Morrison's point, made in a variety of often-melodramatic plot developments, is that America was founded on the involuntary servitude of blacks and whites, that the colonies are rife with people whobelong nowhere else and anxiously strive to find something to hold onto in the New World. Gorgeous language and powerful understanding of the darkest regions in the human heart compensate for the slightly schematic nature of the characters and the plot. Better seen as a lengthy prose poem than a novel, this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own shadowy luster to the Nobel laureate's shimmering body of work.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
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" (page 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" (page 5), and later, "Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here" (page 7). 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 text books?

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" (page 28). 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" (page 50). 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" (pages 77–78). 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" (page 58). What does the novel as a whole reveal about the precarious position of women, European and African, free and enslaved, in late-17th-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" (page 141)?

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" (page 74). How are Christians depicted in the novel? How do they regard Florens, and black people generally?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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