Friday, April 13, 2012

Historical Fiction: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In anticipation of her latest novel, Home, which is scheduled to hit bookstores on May 8, 2012, I have decided to cover Toni Morrison's most recently published novel, A Mercy. This is the fourth Morrison novel I have had a priviledge of reading and she has yet to dissapoint. Morrison writes the type of stories that, while extremely powerful in the initial reading, always have he potential of revealing even more when they are discussed with others or revisited in the future. A Mercy is actually a fairly short novel (compared to others, such as Song of Solomon), so I do recommend it to anyone who has not had previous exposure to Morrison's writing.

The Situation: Jacob Vaark decides to take on s small slave girl in 17th century America has payment on a debt. Jacob objects to the slave trade, but decides to take Florens on to at least recover some of his lost money. Jacob then returns home and continues to attempt to amass his own fortune and build up his own personal empire. Lina, a Native American who works and lives on the Vaark farm helps take care of and raise Florens among her many other duties, which also includes taking care of Sorrow, another younger girl who lives there but is described as wild and often uncontrollable. Vaark decides to build a newer, bigger, and better house, and with the aid of a free African blacksmith, that dream can become a reality.

The Problem: Vaark soon succumbs to smallpox and dies, leaving his wife, Rebekkah, and their servants to struggle through disease hardship alone. Also, Florens has fallen madly in love with the free blacksmith and is no longer any help on the farm because of it. Lina fears she may end up worse off than Sorrow, who pregnant herself by someone unnamed (as far as I can tell) and often talks to her imaginary twin more than anyone else.

Oh yeah...Rebekkah has almost been driven crazy by the many children that have been born to her only to die. It doesn't help her much that Sorrow is pregnant.

Also, almost every character has been uprooted from their homeland, or a place familiar to them, in some way. Vaark was himself an orphan; Sorrow was given to him; Lina is one of the last to survive a smallpox epidemic in her tribe; Rebekkah left England in order to marry Vaark, whom she had never met; and Florens was sold to Vaark at the suggestion of her own mother. Now Lina has left again in order to find the blacksmith once more so that he can help save Rebekkah, who is now suffering from smallpox. And this journey ends up changing her life.

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to label this as a historical novel as it deaks with slavery in early America. There is a constant sense of loss and displacement, but I also thought there was also a sense of a determination to survive, especially in Lina. In the beginning, although Vaark detests the slave trade, he agrees to take Lina as part of payment on a bad debt from a Portuguese landowner in Maryland. Many times throughout that part of the story, Vaark proclaims his displeasure of dealing with the Catholic plantation owner, as he is Anglo-Dutch and looks down on their way od doing business.

The title seems to suggest that perhaps what Florens' mother did in giving her away was in fact "a mercy" to her daughter, and not necessarily an act of neglect. There are many more actions in the novel that, on the surface, seem to be harsh and cruel, but Morrison seems to challenge the reader to wonder of whether those actions were actually for the better, as the harsh circumstances cause the charatcers to make difficult and heart-breaking decisions.

My Verdict: While this isn't my favorite Morrison book, I still highly recommend it. It isn't as hard to read as Beloved or The Bluest Eye, and it may not have as many layers as Song of Solomon, but it is still an excellent picture of early America and the effects of the slave trade.

Favorite Moment: When Sorrow is about to have her baby, instead of running to Lina to notify her that the baby is coming, or even going to Rebekkah, she simply goes down to the riverbank with a knife and a blanket and hopes that two other characters, Willard and Scully, are in their usual spot fishing and will help her deliver the baby. Fortunately they are and they do and the both baby and mother end up doing just fine.

Favorite Character: Lina. I am really big on quiet strength and Lina seemed to be just that.

Favorite Quote: "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."

Recommended Reading: Beloved, also by Toni Morrison. I will warn you though...this book is hard. However, Morrison does the most brilliant thing but causing the reader to have sympathy for someone who does one of the most detestable things imagineable to her own children.

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