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A Mercy
     

A Mercy

3.5 101
by Toni Morrison
 

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A powerful tragedy distilled into a small masterpiece by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader in 1680s United States, when the slave trade is still in its infancy. Reluctantly he takes a small slave girl in part payment from a plantation owner for a bad

Overview

A powerful tragedy distilled into a small masterpiece by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader in 1680s United States, when the slave trade is still in its infancy. Reluctantly he takes a small slave girl in part payment from a plantation owner for a bad debt. Feeling rejected by her slave mother, 14-year-old Florens can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, but later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives . . .

At the novel's heart, like Beloved, it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter – a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

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 powerful tragedy distilled into a small masterpiece of the relationship between a mother and a daughter, difficult choices and future ramifications.”
National Post

“Exquisite.”
The Vancouver Sun

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307276766
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/11/2009
Series:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
70,282
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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 rest your chin in my hair again while I breathe into your shoulder in and out, in and out. I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me. To get to you I must leave the only home, the only people I know. Lina says from the state of my teeth I am maybe seven or eight when I am brought here. We boil wild plums for jam and cake eight times since then, so I must be sixteen. Before this place I spend my days picking okra and sweeping tobacco sheds, my nights on the floor of the cookhouse with a minha mãe. We are baptized and can have happiness when this life is done. The Reverend Father tells us that. Once every seven days we learn to read and write. We are forbidden to leave the place so the four of us hide near the marsh. My mother, me, her little boy and Reverend Father. He is forbidden to do this but he teaches us anyway watching out for wicked Virginians and Protestants who want to catch him. If they do he will be in prison or pay money or both. He has two books and a slate. We have sticks to draw through sand, pebbles to shape words on smooth flat rock. When the letters are memory we make whole words. I am faster than my mother and her baby boy is no good at all. Very quickly I can write from memory the Nicene Creed including all of the commas. Confession we tell not write as I am doing now. I forget almost all of it until now. I like talk. Lina talk, stone talk, even Sorrow talk. Best of all is your talk. At first when I am brought here I don't talk any word. All of what I hear is different from what words mean to a minha mãe and me. Lina's words say nothing I know. Nor Mistress's. Slowly a little talk is in my mouth and not on stone. Lina says the place of my talking on stone is Mary's Land where Sir does business. So that is where my mother and her baby boy are buried. Or will be if they ever decide to rest. Sleeping on the cookhouse floor with them is not as nice as sleeping in the broken sleigh with Lina. In cold weather we put planks around our part of the cowshed and wrap our arms together under pelts. We don't smell the cow flops because they are frozen and we are deep under fur. In summer if our hammocks are hit by mosquitoes Lina makes a cool place to sleep out of branches. You never like a hammock and prefer the ground even in rain when Sir offers you the storehouse. Sorrow no more sleeps near the fireplace. The men helping you, Will and Scully, never live the night here because their master does not allow it. You remember them, how they would not take orders from you until Sir makes them? He could do that since they are exchange for land under lease from Sir. Lina says Sir has a clever way of getting without giving. I know it is true because I see it forever and ever. Me watching, my mother listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minha mãe begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me. Sir agrees and changes the balance due. As soon as tobacco leaf is hanging to dry Reverend Father takes me on a ferry, then a ketch, then a boat and bundles me between his boxes of books and food. The second day it becomes hurting cold and I am happy I have a cloak however thin. Reverend Father excuses himself to go elsewhere on the boat and tells me to stay exact where I am. A woman comes to me and says stand up. I do and she takes my cloak from my shoulders. Then my wooden shoes. She walks away. Reverend Father turns a pale red color when he returns and learns what happens. He rushes all about asking where and who but can find no answer. Finally he takes rags, strips of sailcloth lying about and wraps my feet. Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here. A sailor spits into the sea when Reverend Father asks him for help. Reverend Father is the only kind man I ever see. When I arrive here I believe it is the place he warns against. The freezing in hell that comes before the everlasting fire where sinners bubble and singe forever. But the ice comes first, he says. And when I see knives of it hanging from the houses and trees and feel the white air burn my face I am certain the fire is coming. Then Lina smiles when she looks at me and wraps me for warmth. Mistress looks away. Nor is Sorrow happy to see me. She flaps her hand in front of her face as though bees are bothering her. She is ever strange and Lina says she is once more with child. Father still not clear and Sorrow does not say. Will and Scully laugh and deny. Lina believes it is Sir's. Says she has her reason for thinking so. When I ask what reason she says he is a man. Mistress says nothing. Neither do I. But I have a worry. Not because our work is more, but because mothers nursing greedy babies scare me. I know how their eyes go when they choose. How they raise them to look at me hard, saying something I cannot hear. Saying something important to me, but holding the little boy's hand.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She is the author of many novels, including Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. She has also received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her fiction.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Princeton, New Jersey, and Manhattan
Date of Birth:
February 18, 1931
Place of Birth:
Lorain, Ohio
Education:
Howard University, B.A. in English, 1953; Cornell, M.A., 1955

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A Mercy 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 99 reviews.
Yesh_Prabhu_Writer More than 1 year ago
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.¿
Reading this novel was an intense, deeply moving, and satisfying experience. Even though the novel is short, it is bright, deep and weighty.
Twink More than 1 year ago
Newly released, A Mercy takes place in the 1680's - the early days of the slave trade in the Americas.

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.

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.

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.

..."especially here where tobacco and slaves were married, each currency clutching it's partner's elbow".

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.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
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.
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.

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.

A strange household? Yes. But each in quest of heart's fulfillment, as are we all.

Every listener will undoubtedly find something different in A Mercy - all will be sorry it is over so soon.

- Gail Cooke
NancyO More than 1 year ago
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.

A brief work, this is a relatively quick read, but worthy of contemplation.
Sam_Holloway More than 1 year ago
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.
tonyathamestaylor More than 1 year ago
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.
PaDi More than 1 year ago
will remain in your mind for a long time for on it is revealed
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.
She is an incredible writer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard read. Like all morrison web and flow awesome
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
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AndiC007 More than 1 year ago
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.
poe41 More than 1 year ago
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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Excellant. That is all that needs to be said. Enjoy.
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