Book Review: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

amercyI’ve been looking forward to reading Toni Morrison’s latest novel for awhile.  Her books always shoot right to the top of the bestseller list, even though they are often very difficult to read: emotionally, thematically, and stylistically.  Anybody who can write like that but still get wide scale public reading deserves my attention.  Plus, with A Mercy, she took a different approach than she typically does, by expanding the discussion of slavery to the various forms of slavery our country has endured.

The narrative is often times difficult to follow.  It’s Morrison after all, so I’m not surprised. Interestingly, she gives these voiceless characters voices and allows them to tell their own part of the story, which often isn’t in chronological order. 

The story begins with a farmer named Jacob Vaark, who is working to create a life in the new world, circa late 1600s.   He colonizes his farm with a variety of people: black, white, and Native American slaves; indentured servants; and a wife, purchased from England.  The main theme of the book is slavery in its various forms and how our country in its infancy turned to slavery for its growth. 

Lina is a Native American slave who is purchased by Jacob after her family is ravaged by smallpox.  She becomes the friend and confident of Mrs. Rebekkah Vaark, a woman in a new country, working to make a new life and escape the evils she found in England.  Vaark also purchases a young black slave named Florens, whose own mother asked Vaark to take her daughter away because she believed Vaark would offer her a better life.  Sorrow is a mysterious character who is a white orphan who lived at sea with her family, only to be shipwrecked and taken in by Vaark as another servant. 

The action of the plot arrives when a free black man, a blacksmith, works on Vaark’s grand new home, only to win the heart of Florens.  The blacksmith demonstrates a talent for healing, and when the Rebekkah falls ill with Smallpox, Florens undertakes a long and dangerous journey to find him.

Morrison addresses many powerful topics in this book, but the idea that slavery exists in many forms was the most resonant and applicable for me.  Not only were black people enslaved by our country during a particular time period, slavery extended to all skin colors.  Not only that, but slavery isn’t always the purchased labor of another human being.  It extends to the many ways we contract ourselves to others.  Such a broad understanding of slavery allows us in the modern era to conceive of how we might be slaves.

Are we slaves to our jobs? Have we signed on the bottom line and indentured ourselves to work that is beneath our own honor, or are we serving a worthless master, a false idol that has entrapped us?  Our hearts can be enslaved by passions that disable us from freedom in Christ. 

Never is the concept more powerful in the book but when Florens declares her love for the blacksmith, by telling him, “You alone own me.”  To the free black man, this statement is repellant. “Own yourself, woman,” he answers. “You are nothing but wilderness. No constraint. No mind.”  He’s telling her that she isn’t free because she has enslaved herself to her emotions.  The blacksmith has become a false idol, above all else, and she loses the freedom to be herself.

Fortunately, it’s a short book, one of Morrison’s shortest.  If you haven’t read Morrison before, this might be a good place to start, especially if you pair it with her Nobel Prize winning Beloved, another book that addresses slavery in our country.

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  1. I don’t think Jacob Vaark technically bought Florens. He had no choice really after she was forced on him to redeem a debt owed by Mr D’Ortega. The mother’s convincing plea to take her repeatedly was the straw that broke the camels back. In this case, Jacob Vaark surrendered and took her as payment. So in my opinion, he didn’t buy her though she was in exchange for payment owed.

    AL: Thanks for the clarification there. I think it’s a gray area, since she was “exchanged for payment owed.” But the brilliance in this novel is creating areas open to all kinds of moral interpretations and discussions.


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