A Mercy

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Overview

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 ...
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A Mercy

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Overview

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.

From the Compact Disc edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's first novel in five years follows characters white and black, enslaved and free, as they attempt to find stability and love in the 17th-century American Colonies. At the center of the fiction is Florens, a youthful black woman who becomes chattel in a financial transaction gone wrong. As she attempts to cope with her predicament, she comes into contact with others also struggling to find a niche in the uncertainties of the New World. As in previous works, Morrison establishes the uniqueness of her characters by Rashomon-like devices of multiple perspectives on the same events.
Ron Charles
…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.
—The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
…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.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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.)

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Library Journal

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. (LJ10/15/08)


—Ann Burns
Kirkus Reviews
Abandonment, betrayal and loss are the somber themes of this latest exploration of America's morally compromised history from Morrison (Love, 2003, etc.). 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. First printing of 300,000. Book-of-the-Month Club main selection
From the Publisher
“A horrifying act stood at the center of Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterwork, Beloved: a runaway slave, caught in her effort to escape, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw, determined to spare the girl the fate she herself has suffered as a slave. A similarly indelible act stands at the center of Ms. Morrison’s remarkable new novella, A Mercy, 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–a system that moves men and women and children around ‘like checkers’ and casts a looming shadow over both parental and romantic love.

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. . . . A heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams, [that] also stands, with Beloved, as one of Ms. Morrison’s most haunting works yet.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Spellbinding . . . Dazzling . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison’s body of work. The lush poetry and amorphous structure of [the novel] reflect the story’s distant setting in the mist of America’s creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. . . . 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. Where 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, The Washington Post Book World

“Luminous and complex . . . In Beloved, Morrison told the story of Sethe, a woman who murdered her own child rather than see her sold into slavery. Early on in A Mercy, we watch a mother do the opposite–she puts her daughter Florens up for sale . . . It’s a less bloody moment, but in its way it’s no less chilling. A Mercy is that daughter’s tale. . . . Morrison is mooting the perversely hopeful possibility that slavery could have existed without racism or at least without racism as we know it. She lavishes some of her best writing in years on [A Mercy’s] pre-Revolutionary world . . . A Mercy shows us America in the moment before race madness ruined it–it is a wounded land, but the wound has not yet turned septic. . . . In A Mercy, Morrison is urging her younger self, the tortured soul who fashioned the infernal vision that is Beloved, to look even further–beyond the veil of pain and anger, however righteous, to hope. There was a time before the present misery, Morrison seems to be telling herself. And therefore, maybe, there will be a time after it.”
–Lev Grossman, Time

“Magnificent . . . As with all Morrison’s finest work, A Mercy compellingly combines immediacy and obliquity. Its evocation of pioneer existence in America surrounds you with sensuous intensity. . . . An attack by a bear is described with thrilling power. . . . Idioms have potent directness, too. . . . Rich knowledgeability about 17th-century America is put to telling effect. Voices speak to you as if you were there. . . . The book keeps you vividly aware of the vital human individuality that racism’s crude categorizations are brutally trying to iron out. . . . A stark story of the evils of possessiveness and the perils of dispossession emerges slantwise. Hints, suspicions, secrets, ambivalences, scarcely acknowledged motives and barely noticeable nuances serve as signposts to enormities and desperations: around slavery’s large-scale uprootings, Morrison spotlights individual instances of loss (orphans and outcasts are, as often in her fiction, much in evidence; compensatory alliances they form are warmly portrayed). A Mercy is so enthralling that you’ll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.”
–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)

“In [A Mercy,] a mother chooses to give her daughter to a stranger, the man who will ‘own’ her, in hopes that she’ll find a better life. It is this act from which the book derives its title, but it is, of course, an ambivalent gesture whose tragic resonance will be slowly unveiled. . . . Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called ‘the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.’ Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play. . . . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope.”
–Renée Graham, Boston Sunday Globe

“[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] bound[s] into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a doe. A Mercy . . . is that beguiling and beautiful, that deftly condensed, that sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity. . . . Finely hammered phrases repeatedly come off the anvil, forming a story as powerful as the many she has shaped before. Elements of this writer’s art from way back remain part of her achievement here. Like a mighty telescope perched on a contemporary plateau, Morrison draws in signals, moods, torments, exhilarations from African American life and history . . . Morrison mixes the verbal music of an era with idiosyncratic wisdom, delivered indirectly rather than ex cathedra, recalling omniscient Russian masters without imitating them. . . . Along the way come moments whose artistry freezes one’s page-turning. Morrison’s tactile reports rivet . . . What’s the opposite of ‘lazy’ in a fiction writer’s style and research? Industrious? Indefatigable? Morrison wears her knowledge lightly, yet every page exhibits her control of [the 17th century’s] objects and artifacts, its worries and dangers. She surrounds A Mercy’s more fanciful arabesques with a broad border of realism. . . . A book as masterfully wrought as A Mercy behooves its author to swagger. Go to it, Ms. Morrison.”
–Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A grand tragedy writ in miniature . . . Women, men, Africans, Native Americans, whites, masters, slaves–all are cast into the hard world that is the New World in Toni Morrison’s lustrous new novel. In the same way, the Nobel Prize winner casts us into her hypnotic, many-voiced narrative set in the 17th century in a nation yet unformed. . . . We’re beguiled from the opening sentence: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The speaker is Florens, black, barely out of childhood, a slave but literate, whose eager-to-please ways and lyrical language endear her to us and to the Virginia household of Jacob Vaark. . . . The subject of [A Mercy] is slavery, and [Morrison] brings to it, along with some of her most haunting language, elements of history and mythos. . . . A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Beloved as ‘awful human power.’ . . . This novel’s release coincides with the presidential election of Barack Obama, a shining moment in our country’s history of which Morrison’s characters can barely dream.”
–Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald

“Themes of slavery and grief, of women’s struggles to escape the bitterness of the captive world, are at the center of Morrison’s work. They also lie at the heart of her new novel, A Mercy, which looks to history [as in Beloved]–in this case, the 1680s and 1690s–to explore the agonies of slavery among the settlers of the New World. Such a description makes Morrison’s novel sound far too pat, however; it slights the poetry and breadth of her work. Yes, A Mercy is about slavery, but in the most universal sense, meaning the limits we place on ourselves as well as the confinements we suffer at the hands of others. . . . [It is] a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called [Morrison’s] ‘noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.’ The story assumes even greater metaphorical power at this particular moment, with the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president.”
–Judith Freeman, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Morrison is] a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. . . . 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 . . . [A Mercy] is [Morrison’s] 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. . . . [A Mercy] 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.’ . . . No character in the novel is wholly evil . . . Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. . . . 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. . . . The landscape of A Mercy is full of both beauties and terrors: snow ‘sugars’ eyelashes, yet icicles hang like ‘knives’ . . . But whatever the glories and 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.”
–David Gates, The New York Times Book Review (cover)

“Morrison’s short, magisterial new novel testifies to the art of a writer able to conjure near-unimaginable lives sunk three centuries ago in the infant American colonies . . . In the women of A Mercy, Morrison returns to the meaning of human identity, its relationship to community and the making and sundering of both. These questions glint under the pressure slavery weighs on the New World. . . . A Mercy is threaded with dreams and fever, sickness and ghosts, menstrual blood and afterbirth–its authenticity lies quite apart from archaeology. But that authenticity gathers over the accumulation of pages, and final chapter . . . stings with revelation. Morrison flings us into a dread past. But A Mercy pulls us, shuddering, onto the banks of meaning.”
–Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer

A Mercy captures the same crazy magic of Song of Solomon and Beloved, Morrison’s most haunting, lyrical books. One doesn’t read them so much as go digging for truths past tight and buried deep in Morrison’s words. In part, it is the sheer mental work–the close reading, the flipping back and forth between passages–that makes her novels so satisfying. By the end, one feels as if one has cracked a code. Or seen the light.”
–Maggie Galehouse, Houston Chronicle

“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

“Astonishing . . . 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 1682 and a primeval America before racial hierarchies had been chiseled in stone . . . when ordinary men and women hoped that courage alone would prove enough to win dominion over their rude lives. The Dutch-born farmer and trader Jacob Vaark . . . will take Florens, a little black girl in silly shoes, as partial payment of a debt . . . What happens to ‘love-disabled’ Florens on Jacob’s farm . . . 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. . . . All adds up to a sensuous omniscience that is practically Elizabethan.”
–John Leonard, Harper’s Magazine

“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

“Toni Morrison mines the epic themes of race and class, love and friendship, oppression and freedom–this time through the rarely told tales of early colonists and the black slaves with whom they lived. [A Mercy] is a page-turner, riveting and complex.”
–Marilyn Milloy, AARP Magazine

“Eerily resonant . . . A slender novel that plunges resoundingly into the pre-history of black America to tell the interlocking stories of three slavewomen and their mistress, [A Mercy] is as linguistically rich and emotionally wrenching as [Morrison’s] best work . . . 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.”
–Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

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

“Toni Morrison’s books are epics of the failure of the country’s conscience. [With A Mercy,] she goes back further in history than her most searing and poetic novel, Beloved, to look at the foundations of slavery in an America ‘before it was America.’ The chances for mercy to thrive in a new land are weighed on a small farm in New York. Four women who were acquired by farmer-turned-trader Jacob Vaark in various ways have forged an unlikely family . . . [Vaark’s] farm is a small collective of every type of servitude possible years before the country turned exclusively and implacably to the enslavement of black Africans. . . . 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. It’s a spare, dark fable–and at under 200 pages, a swift, kaleidoscopic trip into tragedy.”
–Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor

“Within [its] elegant structure, [A Mercy] returns to the great theme of [Morrison’s] Pulitzer Prize—winning Beloved: slavery and its tar pit of historical, political, and emotional implications. . . . 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. It parses sometimes surprisingly fine distinctions between master and slave, male and female, black and white (and brown). . . . Above all, A Mercy brims with the omnipresence of the author’s questing, sifting brain, which the reader can feel injecting each strand of the story, subjecting it to the closest scrutiny before weaving it into the whole. 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.”
–Kevin Nance, Poets & Writers (cover story)

“Stunning . . . A Mercy deserves to be counted alongside some of [Morrison’s] most acclaimed novels, such as Sula and Beloved. The stories in A Mercy are as layered and contested as the barely mapped topology traversed by its characters. Set in the 1680s, when this country’s reliance on slavery as an economic engine was just beginning, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother’s desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master's debt. . . . Readers familiar with Morrison’s work will recognize its quietly chilling evocations of the supernatural and depictions of powerful relationships among women. A bride and her new husband’s female servant eye each other with suspicion that mellows into genuine mutual affection. A motherless child clings painfully to a childless mother. Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, beginning and ending with the devil’s bargain referred to in the title and explained in the novel’s devastating conclusion.”
–Neda Ulaby, NPR

“Toni Morrison’s short and forceful new novel unfolds in a primeval 17th-century America, before the familiar, invidious social institutions have taken root. 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.”
–Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

“Toni Morrison continues to delve into the reverberations of slavery, motherhood, sacrifice and identity she wrote about in Beloved. 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. . . . Readers will be buoyed by the power and beauty of Morrison’s words and will need a breath to absorb the timely implications of her stories about class, greed and intolerance. . . . Toni Morrison gives us another layered vision of the complicated character of America and how we survive.”
–Susanna Bullock, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Powerful . . . Morrison’s prose is richly lyrical, compressed, intense. . . . Pulsing life [has been] imparted to her characters and the wholly convincing world they inhabit. . . . [The narrator] Florens and the blacksmith [she loves] generate much of the drama in A Mercy, and much of the thematic punch, too. Abandoned and betrayed as a child, Florens is a slave enslaved by love–love for a free man who warns her, ‘Own yourself, woman’ . . . Her lover’s advice [can be thought of] as a shout across the centuries. 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.”
–Adam Begley, New York Observer

“[A Mercy] reads like the ur-text for all [Morrison’s] previous fiction. Coincidentally or not, it also offers a bookend to a historic presidential candidacy that has prompted talk of a ‘post-racial’ society. A Mercy examines what might be called a ‘pre-racial’ America, the formative years at the end of the 17th century when our forebears still had a chance of turning their collective backs against slavery . . . [The narrator] Florens’ strange diction and obsession with the [man] she loves weave hypnotically through the book. . . . Morrison vaults over America’s legacy of victimizing women and minorities to claim the more provocative turf that infuses much of her fiction. A Mercy tracks the beginnings of a system of oppression by focusing on the psychology of that oppression. . . . Powerful . . . Poetic.”
–Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times

“Compelling . . . [A Mercy] slyly probes the roots of American class and race resentment, and posits a plausible creation myth for our enduring culture war. A Mercy unfolds, Rashomon—style, from various points of view across multiple time frames. Primary narrator Florens, a young slave in 1680s Maryland, has been sent to fetch a free African blacksmith who was once employed by her farm master, Dutch-English émigré Jacob Vaark, and with whom she’s smitten. Florens’ perilous journey is contextualized by individual chapters told from the perspectives of [the other residents of Vaark’s farm] . . . Their ruminations reveal a melting pot seasoned with a moral certitude and social withdrawal from the start. . . . [The novel’s] power is in Morrison’s fluid, compassionate synthesis of the plight of her band of outcasts, who come together but never quite cohere. Four stars.”
–Mark Holcomb, Time Out New York

“Toni Morrison, the most important novelist of the last quarter century, is still writing about life’s journeys: gut-wrenching pain, sun-scraping triumph, and all the gunk in between . . . A Mercy [is] a surprisingly tender story of a mother and daughter . . . It’s like a spiritual prequel to Beloved.”
–Sean Fennessey, Vibe

“Luminous, virtuosic . . . A gripping story that shows the author at the height of her magical-realist powers. Morrison makes us sense unearthly visions in slavery’s grimmest origins, in mother’s love’s power of sacrifice and in the gamut of moralities that enabled some in the 18th century to subscribe to human bondage and others to reject it.”
–Celia McGee, Town & Country

“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 the 17th century, this country was a wild confederation of colonies. . . . Fear and danger were matched only by the force of determined survival. To describe this world requires more than mere words, to live among society’s most downtrodden survivors takes more than strength. 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 . . . [A Mercy is] an unforgettable and marking experience.”
–Adera Causey, Chattanooga Free Press

“A triumph . . . 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 1600s, danger has many faces. . . . Gorgeously written and haunted.”
The Arizona Republic

“[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.

“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

“Florens is eight years old when she is sold away from her mother and sixteen when she speaks the intriguing first lines of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ . . . 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. Second: slowly, lingering over Morrison’s prose, which is probably the closest thing to true poetry you will find in a modern novel . . . Our reaction to this newest historical novel by the Nobel laureate is not, ‘What a shame this happened to these long-dead, not-quite-real people, but ‘This could have been me walking barefoot through a forest, giving birth on a riverbank.’ . . . A Mercy not only belongs on all of next year’s literary prize shortlists, but on the bookshelf of all those who consider themselves serious students of American history.”
–Stephanie Eve Boone, The Buffalo News

“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

“[Morrison] subtly exposes contradictions that have been part of the American dream from the outset. If Beloved was written in a prophet’s voice, A Mercy is the work of an elderly sage. Set in the late 1600s along the Eastern Seaboard, Morrison’s novel centers on the farm of an upwardly mobile immigrant, Jacob Vaark [who] acquires a young slave named Florens in exchange for a debt. . . . Vaark’s world may be the narrative stage throughout, but the stories drift, Faulkner-like, through the different perspectives of the characters, especially Florens. Morrison returns in the end to the transaction that gave Florens to Vaark, and in a moving climax recasts the coldness of the men’s negotiation as a mother’s gesture of love–the title’s displaced mercy. . . . The poignancy [of this moment] gets elevated by Morrison’s terse theological critique: ‘It was not a miracle. Bestowed by god. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.’ Slavery, needless to say, was flourishing in an overtly Christian society, and in this staccato judgment Morrison damns religion with its own best language. . . . A Mercy achieves a vivid sense of time and place. . . . A wise, compelling novel whose hopeful title is hard-won and shadowed hard by threats that are all too familiar.”
–Todd Shy, Raleigh News & Observer

“Always engaging and lyrically written . . . I like being kept off center [by Morrison’s novels], the text luring me in, slowly, sinuously revealing mysteries and connections, one elaborate revelation after another. We’re in Virginia in 1690 in this sumptuously written novel, with its images from dreams, folklore, visions, confrontations and incidents, amid a lush but dangerous wilderness . . . Morrison explores in luminous detail all of [her] characters’ attitudes, hopes, terrors and frustrations. . . . Such a brief review must give short shrift to Morrison’s rich prose, the lucid and poetic densities of her sentences and images. This textual depth is more than half the fun of all her books, seducing us with almost musical tones into the dark mysteries of the human heart in our dark land of black and white.”
–Sam Coale, The Providence Journal

“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

“Breathtaking . . . Beguiling . . . Fast-moving and poignant. . . . By concentrating on the denizens of one homestead, Morrison is able to limn the entire disorder of early America. It’s one of the reasons this short novel is so powerful–Morrison’s deep and sympathetic focus on a handful of lives. Each chapter concentrates on one character, and as the book unfolds, the story is revealed, slowly, with magisterial grace. The end result is satisfying and stirring. . . . The strength of A Mercy is Morrison’s lucid eye, her uncanny ability to create character studies that are memorable and that, through her lapidary approach, tell a tale that is profound and important. In her hands, character is story. . . . Like William Faulkner, Toni Morrison has honed a personal experimental style that pays great attention to rhythm and diction. Like Faulkner, she is understated and cerebral while creating gothic grotesqueries in an agrarian setting. A Mercy, for all its brevity, will be celebrated and discussed along with Morrison’s best work.”
–Corey Mesler, Memphis Flyer Online

“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 semiliterate 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

“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

“In 1690, Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark . . . reluctantly decides to accept a young slave girl, Florens, as partial compensation [for a debt]. Taken from her baby brother and her mother, who thinks that giving up her daughter to a kinder slave owner is an act of mercy, Florens finds herself in the midst of a community of women striving to understand their burdens of sorrow and grief and to discover the mercies of love. Much as she did in Paradise, Morrison hauntingly weaves the stories of these women into a colorful tale of loss, despair, hope, and love. . . . Magical, mystical, and memorable, Morrison’s poignant parable of mercies hidden and revealed belongs in every library.”
–Henry L. Carrigan, Library Journal (starred)

“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, [A Mercy] 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. . . . 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 (starred)

“Brilliant . . . Riveting, even poetic. . . . The time is the late 1600s, when what will become the U.S. remains a chain of colonies along the Atlantic coast. Not only does slavery still exist, it is a thriving industry that translates into plenty of business for lots of people. . . . [Morrison] has shown a partiality for the ‘chorus’ method of storytelling, wherein a group of individuals who are involved in a single event or incident tell their versions of what happened, the individual voices maintaining their distinctiveness while their personal tales overlap each other with a layering effect that gives Morrison’s prose its resonance and deep sheen of enameling. Here the voices belong to the women associated with Virginia planter Jacob Vaark . . . these women include the long-suffering Rebekka, his wife; Lina and Sorrow, slave women with unique perspectives on the events taking place on Vaark’s plantation; and Florens, a slave girl whom Vaark accepts as partial payment on a debt and whose separation from her mother is the pivotal event around which Morrison weaves her short but deeply involving story. A fitting companion to her highly regarded Beloved.”
–Brad Hooper, Booklist (starred)

“Abandonment, betrayal and loss are the themes of this latest exploration of America’s morally compromised history from Morrison. All of 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. . . . 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. . . . 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 . . . Willard and Scully are indentured servants, farmed out to Jacob by their contract holders, who keep fraudulently extending their time. . . . America was founded on the involuntary servitude of blacks and whites, [and] the colonies are rife with people who belong nowhere else and anxiously strive to find something to hold onto in the New World. [With] gorgeous language and a powerful understanding of the darkest regions of the human heart . . . this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own luster to the Nobel Laureate’s shimmering body of work.”
Kirkus Reviews

“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

“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

“[Morrison] negotiates the twisted intersection of race, class and gender in America better and more fully than any writer has ever done. A Mercy, continues this journey, following the tangled threads of our history all the way back to the beginning, when the very idea of America was still struggling to be born. The result is Morrison’s best novel since Beloved. . . . Using her trademark kaleidoscopic approach, Morrison allows [her] characters to unspool their unique stories [which] succeed in depicting complicated, conflicted beings. . . . The overarching lesson of A Mercy is that history is not foreordained. In an ending that both echoes and diverges from the infanticide hanging over Beloved, we watch another mother make a very different and more hopeful choice regarding her daughter’s fate. In its repeated insistence that such choice is possible, A Mercy not only transcends a monolithic and static view of slavery, racism and the American past. It also pays homage to our collective power to imagine a better future.”
–Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Achingly beautiful . . . A Mercy reads like poetry, with vivid descriptions and emotional dialogue. . . . It is full of sorrow, sacrifice and pain. But it ends with a ray of light, a description of the ultimate mercy.”
–Laura L. Hutchinson, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

“Morrison is a woman whose stories find transcendence in even the darkest periods of history. Her latest novel, A Mercy, casts an unflinching eye on slave trade in the 17th century. It’s heartbreaking, luminous, and a solemn reminder of our nation’s history.”
Redbook

A Mercy takes on slavery in its infancy and reveals what lies beneath the surface. It’s an ambivalent and disturbing story, sparingly written, including rejection, abandonment and acts of mercy with unforeseen consequences.”
Ebony

“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


The Barnes & Noble Review
Early American life was punishing. The scythe of sickness has never been sharper in this country, the fickleness of crops quite so lethal. Everyone involved in the "settlement" suffered, especially when smallpox epidemics scorched through towns and villages. In her meditatively hopeful A Mercy, set on a Virginia farm in the 1690s as pox rages like a fire, Toni Morrison reminds that in these horrific conditions the tenderness of humans could cross boundaries one might assume were unbreachable at the time.

Like her Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece, Beloved, this novel revolves around a mother's agonizing sacrifice. A Dutch trader named Jacob Vaark travels to a Virginia plantation to collect on a debt. Lacking funds, the borrower offers Vaark flesh -- a trade Vaark is disinclined to accept. Men whose fortunes rest upon the backs of forced labor are weak, he feels. But then a woman steps forward and pleads with him to accept her daughter. "Please, Senhor. Not me," she asks him. "Take her. Take my daughter."

A Mercy could have taken a lurid turn here -- as in life it perhaps often did -- but Morrison steers her novel in a more unexpected direction. Vaark, we learn, is moved to accept the girl because he, too, was an orphan once. He remembered "well [orphans] and his own sad teeming in the markets, lanes, alleyways and ports of every region he traveled." The girl, whose name is Florens, is also not the first one he has taken in. If his wife's children continue to die shortly after their births, she might not be his last.

The arrival of the girl on Vaark's farm immediately alters the ecology of relationships that have developed there. Lina, a Native American slave, takes Florens in and protects her. Sorrow, a hardworking foundling who has arrived in Vaark's care already raped and ill, becomes jealous of her preferred treatment. A blacksmith desires Florens; she reciprocates with a passion that is almost feral. In the end, after Vaark dies of the pox, his wife puts her life in Florens's black hands.

As in so many Morrison novels, especially the later ones, readers must work to assemble this narrative. It unfolds out of order, piecemeal, alternating from character to character, some of whom, like Florens, speak directly to the reader. Others Morrison speaks for in her magisterial third person.

It was William Faulkner who laid bare the possibilities of this storytelling method in The Sound and the Fury. Jolting the reader from character to character meant a narrative could arise in the background, within the relationships between its characters. Excepting Louise Erdrich, no American novelist has grasped the spooky logic of how to tell a story this way quite like Morrison.

There are risks, however, to this narrative method, ones to which A Mercy falls prey dismayingly often. In the opening pages it is difficult to understand who is speaking, who is being observed by whom. One needs to read on to sort out such minor mysteries, but Morrison soon replaces them with new ones.

Florens's sections, which address an offstage "you," like a love letter or lyric poem, describe a journey through the woods of some urgency. Is she escaping? Is she returning to her mother? Morrison doesn't unpack this enigma until the book is two-thirds done. To put these questions on hold in the mind while pushing deeper into A Mercy requires far more than suspending disbelief. It means the reader must have absolute faith in Morrison as a storyteller.

She has certainly earned this trust. In Beloved and Song of Solomon she crafted unquestionable masterpieces about the bonds of motherhood. Love and Jazz evoked the fine line between passion's refining fire and its destructive blazes. In her characters' voices we often hear the singular sound of American language.

Morrison is also -- one cannot say this often enough -- a beautiful writer. Like Michael Ondaatje, who possesses a similar disdain for linear narrative, Morrison understands that if she is going to make her readers travel sideways, it is only fair to give them lights to stumble by. "When the women faded," she writes in A Mercy, describing how ghosts come to visit Vaark's wife after she falls into a fever, "it was the moon that stared back like a worried friend in a sky the texture of a lady's ball gown."

Before his wife took ill, Vaark decided to build himself a large mansion, an ominous act of hubris described through Lina's eyes: "That third and presumably final house that Sir insisted on building distorted sunlight and required the death of fifty trees." Vaark, who prided himself on living within the confines of nature, on not becoming a slave driver, couldn't help but overstep.

What happens next -- disease spreading like wildfire, some of the farm being spared, some of it not -- feels like punishment for Vaark's presumption. But it's not a connection a reader easily makes (and not until finishing the book), since Morrison forces the reader to spend so much time sorting out the story, unraveling connections that needn't be so mysterious. Perfected in Beloved, used adeptly in Love and Jazz, Morrison's narrative braid here simply feels needlessly complex.

It's an odd mistake in a novel that is, at the root, meant to be about shared burdens, about how there were many different forms of slavery at that time. Vaark's wife, for instance, travels to America to a husband she does not know, aboard a vessel not much nicer than the ships in which slaves were transported . Her father has essentially sold her to a stranger. Upon arrival, she shares something with many women at the time, even those of a different faith.

"The promise and threat of men. Here, they agreed, was where security and risk lay.... Some, like Lina, who had experienced both deliverance and destruction at their hands, withdrew. Some, like Sorrow, who apparently was never coached by other females, became their play. Some like her shipmates fought them. Others, the pious, obeyed them. And a few, like herself, after a mutually loving relationship, became like children when the man was gone."

In this sense, if A Mercy begins with a mother's agonizing sacrifice, it becomes a story because a man provides the act that gives the book its title. These were the gender dynamics of the time. As the story expands, slaves who are white, Native American, black, and emotionally bound pass this gesture back and forth. At a moment when America may be about to elect its first black president, Morrison has given us a fable about an America in which the divisions that almost became calcified were trumped by the basic human need for survival. It is a brief, bone-hard, magically affecting tale -- tangled, but powerful enough that it never has to ask the question: what if it had always been so? --John Freeman

John Freeman's work has appeared in The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal and on NPR. He is completing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780739332559
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/11/2008
  • Format: MP3
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Sales rank: 899,338
  • Ships to U.S.and APO/FPO addresses only.

Meet the Author

Toni Morrison
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.

Biography

Toni Morrison has been called "black America's best novelist," and her incredible string of imaginative contemporary classics would suggest that she is actually one of America's best novelists regardless of race. Be that as it may, it is indeed difficult to disconnect Morrison's work from racial issues, as they lie at the heart of her most enduring novels.

Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, a milieu Jet magazine described as "mixed and sometimes hostile," Morrison experienced racism firsthand. (When she was still a toddler, her home was set on fire with her family inside.) Yet, her father instilled in her a great sense of dignity, a cultural pride that would permeate her writing. She distinguished herself in school, graduating from Howard and Cornell Universities with bachelor's and master's degrees in English; in addition to her career as a writer, she has taught at several colleges and universities, lectured widely, and worked in publishing.

Morrison made her literary debut in 1970 with The Bluest Eye, the story of a lonely 11-year-old black girl who prays that God will turn her eyes blue, in the naïve belief that this transformation will change her miserable life. As the tale unfolds, her life does change, but in ways almost too tragic and devastating to contemplate. On its publication, the book received mixed reviews; but John Leonard of The New York Times recognized the brilliance of Morrison's writing, describing her prose as "...so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry."

Over time, Morrison's talent became self-evident, and her reputation grew with each successive book. Her second novel, Sula, was nominated for a National Book Award; her third, 1977's Song of Solomon, established her as a true literary force. Shot through with the mythology and African-American folklore that informed Morrison's childhood in Ohio, this contemporary folktale is notable for its blending of supernatural and realistic elements. It was reviewed rapturously and went on win a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The culmination of Morrison's storytelling skills, and the book most often considered her masterpiece, is Beloved. Published in 1987 and inspired by an incident from history, this post-Civil War ghost story tells the story of Sethe, a former runaway slave who murdered her baby daughter rather than condemn her to a life of slavery. Now, 18 years later, Sethe and her family are haunted by the spirit of the dead child. Heartbreaking and harrowing, Beloved grapples with mythic themes of love and loss, family and freedom, grief and guilt, while excavating the tragic, shameful legacy of slavery. The novel so moved Morrison's literary peers that 48 of them signed an open letter published in The New York Times, demanding that she be recognized for this towering achievement. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2006, it was selected by The New York Times as the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.

In addition to her extraordinary novels, Morrison has also written a play, short stories, a children's book, and copious nonfiction, including essays, reviews, and literary and social criticism. While she has made her name by addressing important African-American themes, her narrative power and epic sweep have won her a wide and diverse audience. She cannot be dismissed as a "black writer" any more than we can shoehorn Faulkner's fiction into "southern literature." Fittingly, she received the Nobel Prize in 1993; perhaps the true power of her impressive body of work is best summed up in the Swedish Academy's citation, which reads: "To Toni Morrison, who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Good To Know

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.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Chloe Anthony Wofford (real name)
      Toni Morrison
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey, and Manhattan
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lorain, Ohio
    1. Education:
      Howard University, B.A. in English, 1953; Cornell, M.A., 1955

Read an Excerpt

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...

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Reading Group Guide

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?

12. Lina tells Florens, "We never shape the world... The world shapes us" (page 71). 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" (page 54). 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 Florens'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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 98 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 98 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 16, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    A gripping novel written in elegant prose

    In this short, lyrical and gripping novel, Tony Morrison has undertaken, once again, to explore her favorite subject: the evils of slavery. Written in prose so lovely and mesmerizing that it reminded me of her ¿Sula¿, also a short novel published thirty-five years ago, ¿A Mercy¿ was a great joy to read.<BR/><BR/>Jacob Vaark, a Dutch-born farmer and trader, and Rebecca, his English wife own a tobacco plantation. Even though Jacob owned a few slaves, he did so only as a necessity to run his homestead. Jacob is sympathetic towards orphans and waifs because he himself was parentless at a young age, and had to fend for himself on the streets running small errands.<BR/><BR/>At the heart of the novel is an act of mercy. When Jacob Vaark travels to Maryland to collect debt from a tobacco plantaion owner named Senor D¿Ortega, he finds out that Senor is broke and has no money to pay off the debt. Senor offers Jacob a thin black girl named Florens, a daughter of one of his slaves, as a partial payment of the debt. Florens is smart, and she can read and write also. Florens¿ mother senses that Jacob is more kind-hearted than her master, and so pleads with Senor to give Florens to Jacob. Her hope is that Florens would have a better life in Jacob¿s estate. Florens¿s mother considers this an act of mercy, but the irony is that Florence considers it abandonment.<BR/><BR/>Several sympathetic characters make the novel interesting and hold a reader¿s attention. Lina (Messalina), a native American, was sold to Jacob by the Presbytarians who had rescued and saved her. Sorrow, a sea captain¿s daughter, survives a ship wreck, but ends up in Jacob¿s plantation as a slave. Willard and Scully are indentured servants who are sent to work at Jacob¿s plantation by their contract holders. A young black man, a blacksmith, arrives to make an iron gate for Jacob¿s new house. He is not a slave, but a free man. This man is also knowledgeable about medicinal herbs, and Florens falls in love with him. <BR/><BR/>In this novel, Toni Morrison¿s prose shines: ¿A frightened, long-necked child who did not speak for weeks but when she did, her light, singsong voice was lovely to hear. Some how, some way, the child assuaged the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home Lina once knew, where everyone had anything, and no one had everything.¿ <BR/>Reading this novel was an intense, deeply moving, and satisfying experience. Even though the novel is short, it is bright, deep and weighty.

    32 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Evocative, grippiing, beautiful

    Newly released, A Mercy takes place in the 1680's - the early days of the slave trade in the Americas.<BR/><BR/>Jacob is a trader who takes a small slave girl- Florens - in partial payment for a debt. The mother of the child begs him to take the girl, not herself. It is this act that has consequences for all the lives that are intertwined with that of Florens'. Florens joins Jacob's wife Rebekka, Lina, a servant and Sorrow, an indentured young woman, at their hardscrabble farm. Scully and Willard are also hoping to buy their freedom. Florens yearns for the blacksmith, an African who has never been enslaved.<BR/><BR/>Life at this time in history is defined and described from the viewpoint of each of these characters. Each character is enslaved to something in this new world - an owner, religion, wealth, desire and memory. The most poignant voice is that of Floren's mother. The last chapter of the book belongs to her and it ends on a powerful note.<BR/><BR/>Toni Morrison has a gift with words. Although it is tempting to read straight through to the end, I always take the time to savour and enjoy the language she uses.<BR/><BR/>..."especially here where tobacco and slaves were married, each currency clutching it's partner's elbow".<BR/><BR/>Toni Morrison is an amazingly gifted writer, having won both a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize. If you haven't experienced her yet, I encourage you to pick up any of her books.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    AN EMBRACING YET STILL SEARCHING VOICE

    To read Toni Morrison is a privilege. To hear her narrate her work is both privilege and pleasure. Her voice will surprise some as it is slight with the smallest bit of huskiness. Such strong, wonderful words from a voice so quiet? At times the sound belies her 77 years; at other times, it reveals all of that time as she tells us a story of 17th century America, the years before slavery became what we know of it as today. <BR/>Set primarily in the home of farmer Jacob Vaark this is a mini masterpiece, the print copy running a brief 169 pages. His household is unique, a blend of the outcast and the wounded. There is his wife, Rebekka, who fled England to escape religious intolerance. Here her closest friend is Lina, a Native American servant who saw her village destroyed by disease. Sorrow is the oddest of the cast, a strange girl who was found much like a piece of drift wood washed up by the sea. <BR/><BR/>Florens, the central character, is a young slave girl whom Vaark took in payment for a debt. After hearing her mother plead with Vaark to accept her she finds herself lost, searching for love. <BR/><BR/>A strange household? Yes. But each in quest of heart's fulfillment, as are we all. <BR/><BR/>Every listener will undoubtedly find something different in A Mercy - all will be sorry it is over so soon. <BR/><BR/>- Gail Cooke

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2009

    Toni Morrison is a national treasure

    As a companion to "Beloved," this is interesting; as a stand-alone work, it is mesmerizing. In fact, it's a wonderful first book for readers who haven't read Morrion's work. I suggest that once the reader has read through chapter 2, he/she return to chapter 1 and read it again. The plot falls into place neatly and becomes much more accessible to readers who might be confused by Florens' language.<BR/><BR/>A brief work, this is a relatively quick read, but worthy of contemplation.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2012

    I'd never read anything by Toni Morrison, so I had no expectatio

    I'd never read anything by Toni Morrison, so I had no expectations. I loved the various character perspectives, and the way the world was drawn through those characters' eyes. This book is a lyrically beautiful and diverse encapsulation of the beauty, brutality, and fundamental injustice of colonial North America.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Lord Have Mercy

    Toni Morrison explores race through deconstructing (unpacking) the social construction of whiteness. Finally, a book that explores whiteness and put it on trial. This book does not treat whiteness (i.e. Western) traits as "human" traits! It treats white as a color and whiteness as a human construct, not a divine one. The book has several voices-- layered voices that tell a story of identity from individual perspectives. The white characters in the book reveal the solidifying of whiteness through religion, class, community, and gender. Taking place in the wilderness of North America, this book explores how whites came to accept oppression found in a racial caste system. The black characters show how blacks lived in three worlds--one they authored, one they observed, and the one they owned. In self-constructed worlds, they experienced humanity--love and its sacrifices. The Indian character learns to reconcile her memories to find a place in a world that reduced her to a savage. Her self-constructed identity buffered her from the dehumanizing white-authored evironment in which she lived. Lastly, a split human soul found solace in giving life and focusing on that life reminds us all love shared is the best gift to give to another human. "A Mercy" tells the story about how different folks function in the same space, yet have different understandings of that space. While Morrison does a good job at exploring the genesis of racialized identities, at times, a comma here and there would have made this book more enjoyable to read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2009

    Terrible.

    Sorry but I'm giving this audio book away. Toni Morrison is monotonous and pretentious in her reading of this story. I honestly don't know what she was talking about - it's like I was in her bad dream.

    2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    The last page...

    will remain in your mind for a long time for on it is revealed<BR/>the reason for the composition. This is a marvelous book. I have ordered more of Toni Morrison's works as a result of reading A Mercy.<BR/>She is an incredible writer.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2009

    Could Have Been Better!!

    I picked up this book because I found the basic idea to be interesting--something I hadn't really thought about before. When I read the book I was deeply disappointed. Did Ms Morrison have to rush to publish and not finish her complete thoughts on the subject??? I found what she did write to be confusing and underdeveloped. I usually keep books that I have read, and pass them along to people in my life that I think would take something from them. I gave this book to my daughter to take to her book seller ASAP!!!

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2008

    NOT WORTH READING

    THIS IS THE FIRST BOOK I HAVE READ BY THIS AUTHOR AND IT WILL BE THE LAST. IT WAS VERY CONFUSING AS IT JUMPED BETWEEN CHARACTERS AND THEIR STORIES AND YOU WERE NEVER ABLE TO CONNECT WITH ANY OF THEM AS A RESULT OF THIS FORMAT. I WOULD NOT HAVE FINISHED READING THE BOOK EXCEPT THAT IT WAS SELECTED FOR OUR BOOK CLUB TO READ.

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 6, 2008

    Read through this book today...

    I read a chapter in the bookstore and decided not to purchase. Toni Morrison has a strange way of writing. Some people love her style and some don't. I do not particularly like her writing style. I found this book to be BORING.

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2012

    Worst book i ever "tried" to read

    I assumed this book was in line with the movie "beloved" that Oprah praised so highly...i did see the movie and it left me empty without resolution...but figured...its a movie after all...i thought this authors book would be different..

    I was so disappointed in the writing style of this book...it was like reading someones mental notes before editing...i can follow most anyones writing..but this book made me want to stand at a wall and hit my head till i could figure out why it was so difficult..

    Then it hit me...no not the wall...but the resolution as to why i was not enjoying the book...it was not me or my comprehension...it was the mish mash, helter skelter writing style of this author..then it dawned on me....

    I get it...get endorsed by Oprah and doors will open..no matter how weirded out you write a book...a publisher will take their chances...when i think about the fiction i could write on a bad day compared to this book...it makes me sad to think i have not written it...and makes me wonder why not take the chance...

    Oh wait, that's right Oprah hasn't endorsed me....that's why...for people who can understand the direction this writer takes you...all i can say is you need to do something powerful with that mind...because you are way advanced in thought...

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2012

    Okay

    Hard read. Like all morrison web and flow awesome

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2012

    Vivid Character Development

    This is the first Toni Morrison I have read. Her unique approach to character development puts the reader immediately inside the thoughts of each individual. We learn about the world of slavery and prejudice through the eyes of women who lived it. The reader experiences the unique understanding and focus of each character as their lives are woven into a dramatic web of interdependence. The final page reveals a perspective so riveting that the story has stayed with me weeks after I finished reading it.

    This book offers a powerful glimpse into the lives that were shaped by the degridation of prejudice against women and slaves. I am haunted by a new understanding of what it must have felt like to live in that world. I am chagrined to discover blind spots in my own existence that have kept me from seeing the continued segregation in our own society. Thank you, Toni Morrison, for being a conscience for all of us.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 11, 2009

    Indecipherable and disappointing

    Who's on first? "Beloved" was by far worth the work, "Paradise" was difficult, even on a second read (still don't know which character is "the white girl" who was shot first in the first sentence), and maybe I'm just getting too old for this fine but increasingly elusive author.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    A Mercy

    I found this book to be boring and hard to understand, despite being quite intellegent.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2009

    Not a favorite!

    Writing style made story line difficult to follow. Struggled to finish it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A compelling story but difficult to read

    Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, best known for her mesmerizing ¿Beloved¿ has penned her most recent novel, ¿A Mercy,¿ about the turbulent times surrounding the birth of our nation, through the eyes of several downtrodden characters. <BR/><BR/>Jacob Vaark owns a small farm in upstate New York. He abhors slavery but purchases a young Native American, Lina, who is the sole survivor of her village after a smallpox epidemic kills all around her. Jacob also purchases a wife, Rebekka, from England. At first, his wife and Lina don¿t get along, but with the harsh realities of life in the 1690s, they soon come to depend on and love each other. Sorrow, a slave girl who Jacob rescued from a bad situation, struggles to fit into this small, disjointed family. Florens, yet another young slave, is given to Jacob in exchange for a debt owed by a rich landholder.<BR/><BR/>¿A Mercy¿ follows the internal struggles of each person. Jacob is clearly conflicted by his ownership of slaves, ¿God help me if this is not the most wretched business,¿ yet it is thanks to slaves that he is able to stay above the financial fray. Florens, a tortured soul who is never able to come to terms with being given up by her mother feels betrayed.<BR/><BR/>The weaving together of these lives and how they survive on a daily basis in a world where almost all people are for sale, makes for a fascinating read. It is an absorbing look at our country in its infancy when rules were still being written, and landowners used and then discarded other people without a thought. The difficulty with ¿A Mercy¿ is in the way the story is told. It is disjointed with story lines starting and abruptly ending for no apparent reason, making it quite difficult to follow. For instance, the first chapter is a recounting by Florens of her ¿adoption¿ by Jacob, although he is referred to as ¿Sir¿ and never Jacob. The second chapter then jumps to the same event, but through Jacob¿s eyes. The reader has no idea who is telling the narrative, or that this is the same incident until quite late in the chapter.<BR/><BR/>Much of ¿A Mercy¿ is told in the third person and these sections are the easiest to follow while those told by Florens, the slave girl, require careful reading. Her sections are written in her voice and use language such as: ¿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,¿ or ¿Night is thick no stars anyplace but sudden the moon moves. The chafe of needles is too much hurt and there is no resting there at all.¿ You come to understand the cadence, but it takes work.<BR/><BR/>There is much to admire in this book, including the touching chapter recounting Rebekka¿s life. The choices she is faced with, ¿¿her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest,¿ bring the stark realities of life in the 1690s to light. The final chapter concludes in such a chilling way, particularly for Florens, to make the struggle of staying with the difficult text, worthwhile.<BR/><BR/><BR/>Quill says: A compelling story that is very difficult to follow at times.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Picked this up on clearance, as I know Tony Morrison is a wonder

    Picked this up on clearance, as I know Tony Morrison is a wonderful, well-known and award-winning author. But as much as I wanted... I just couldn't get into this. I finished it, sure. But much of the language was very hard to understand, it was quite hard to follow characters, and overall the storyline was pretty dark. Wouldn't recommend if you're not familiar with Morrison's style.

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  • Posted April 16, 2012

    Another Toni Morrison Great

    This book is wonderful as are all Morrison books. It climbs the scale of emotions on every page. The characters are clearly drawn and the plot keeps you reading. Don't expect happy endings for everyone, because TM does not do that.

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