A Mercy

Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, 167 pp., $23.95

To the collective American mind, pre-Revolutionary America is a sparsely populated expanse of raw, green land, shrouded in thick mist, primitive belief and barely concealed savagery. All that’s needed to both subvert and sharpen this superficial presumption is the necessary complexity of human behavior.

Here Toni Morrison pierces through those mists with an intensity more contained than she’s displayed in many years. The Nobel laureate makes vivid not only the physical landscape and its elemental details but also the inner terrors and presumptions that mislead, divide and, too often, conquer the “better angels of our nature” Lincoln would invoke as healing properties for a nation’s shattered psyche.

A Mercy takes place a couple of centuries before that invocation. It is 1682 and Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch farmer with unsavory connections to the rum trade, is now wealthy enough to indulge in the construction of a mansion too big and ostentatious for his fragilely assembled family. The house’s gaudiest feature is an extravagantly wrought iron gate, whose copper serpents are, in the eyes of Jacob’s American Indian slave Lina, far too reminiscent of the entrance to hell. Lina, whose Protestant impulses don’t prevent her from intimate conversations with birds, trees and other denizens of the American wilderness, provides one of the many voices chiming in Morrison’s tone poem of dreams and dread. She watches as Vaark’s grand folly brings him literally to grief and ultimately death. The oversized house blighting the New World’s arcadia becomes emblematic of other delusions seeping into America’s psyche, notably as they pertain to race and sex.

Where in other contexts the consequences of those delusions would have summoned Morrison’s furies, here they are coolly, deftly filtered through the knotty personas of Lina and four other women: Florens, the diminutive, yet strangely regal slave girl whom Jacob collects as compensation for a misguided wager; Rebekka, Jacob’s wife, who was rescued by marriage from religious persecution in England only to become overpowered by Presbyterian dogma after a near-death experience; Sorrow, the scruffy, slightly unhinged “mongrel” whose only confidant is an imaginary friend named Twin; and Florens’ mother, whose own terrible middle passage compels her to help enable the “mercy” of having her daughter sold away to Vaark in order to protect her from a harsher, more brutal destiny.

None of these women—or, for that matter, the men who, save for Jacob, exist along the fringes of their world—finds unmitigated grace in this unforgiving land. Even the promise of love, which Florens believes she’s finding with a free black man (the smith who forges the ominously ostentatious ironwork), shows itself to be yet another delusion, a mirage that goads her toward greater, if more rueful understanding. Among the many harsh lessons she learns comes from Lina who tells her, “We never shape the world….The world shapes us.” Substitute “history” for “world,” and you can begin to understand where what is both forbidding and promising about Toni Morrison’s vision of America converges.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.