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A Mercy

by Toni Morrison

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,5351413,662 (3.72)271
In exchange for a bad debt, an Anglo-Dutch trader takes on Florens, a young slave girl, who feels abandoned by her slave mother and who searches for love--first from an older servant woman at her master's new home, and then from a handsome free blacksmith.
  1. 20
    White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America by Don Jordan (AsYouKnow_Bob)
    AsYouKnow_Bob: When she was out promoting "A Mercy", Toni Morrison talked up 'White Cargo' as a non-fiction approach to the ground she was covering.
  2. 00
    The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (tangentialine)
  3. 00
    Little Fingers by Filip Florian (Othemts)
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» See also 271 mentions

English (129)  Finnish (3)  French (3)  Dutch (3)  Norwegian (2)  German (1)  All languages (141)
Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
Another beautiful gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, deep dive into America's dark past that somehow reflects its dark present. If you don't spend months trying to process a Morrison book or short story, I'm not sure there is any help for you. ;) She was a genius. ( )
  IriDas | Jun 12, 2024 |
A Mercy flings itself right at you from the opening page with dark promises and visions:
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.
The novel will make clearer this poetic opaqueness as it goes on, but it's a disorienting and heady opening.

The person speaking those lines is Florens, a teenage slave in 17th century Virginia. What brought her to this point is founded in the experience of a trauma she does not comprehend the full story of, a trauma following from a series of previous traumas stretching from Angola to Maryland to Virginia. Trying to save her from the predations of their slavemasters, her mother thrust the child into the path of a trader to whom their owners owed a debt. A man whom Florens' mother believes sees Florens as a human child, not prey. "There is no protection, only difference," her mother states late on. In this world, such counts as a mercy.

Florens is traumatized by what she sees as this rejection by her mother. When she reaches adolescence, she seeks to fill her deep longing for attachment through the person of a visiting blacksmith, a free black man in the colony. This dependence of women on men is of a piece with all classes of society portrayed in the novel, from "loose women" to the "upright" Anabaptist congregation. "Although they had nothing in common with the views of each other," Morrison writes, "they had everything in common with one thing: the promise and threat of men. Here, they agreed, was where security and risk lay. And both had come to terms."

It makes all the sense in the world, then, that Florens would bet her entire life and identity on an attachment to the blacksmith. "Never never without you. Here I am not the one to throw out." But Florens clashes with a young child the blacksmith is raising, two children extraordinarily jealous of each other's presence here, physically hurts him, and the blacksmith tells her to leave. More than that, he accuses her of becoming a slave in choice, an empty mind controlled by an uncultivated wildness. "Own yourself, woman, and leave us be," he tells her. Given Florens' trauma and youth, this seems unreasonably harsh; Florens at any rate has her vitally held identity as the blacksmith's woman smashed, has a complete mental break, her her grasping of a hammer explains the ominous reference to blood in the novel's open.

The novel closes with Florens' mother stating what she wished to have been able to impart to her daughter: "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." The first might be a reference to motherhood, the difficult responsibility of doing your best for your child in circumstances horrific or otherwise, when your children may or may not understand your choices. The second seems a reference to slavery, one of the undoubted evils in the novel. The third seems a warning not to seek deliverance by handing your agency and identity to another, may you be a love starved youth or a respectable church-going member of the community.

A powerful novel with rich language, I'll also take the following sentence as a treasure from the book, not because of any centrality to the plot, but because the poetry of it makes me stop in wonder.
Walking in the warm night air, he went as far as possible, until the alehouse lights were gem stones fighting darkness and the voices of carousing men were lost to the silk-rustle of surf.
( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
In early colonial America, a group of people enslaved in different ways come together as a haunted, tortured family. Florens, the daughter of an Angolan slave, is traded by her Portuguese master to satisfy a debt to Sir. Sir refuses to trade in slaves, but also manages to acquire Lina, a Native American, Rebekkah, a mail order bride, and Sorrow, a feral ship wreck survivor. The story is told and retold in their different voices with painstaking care. You can feel Florens learning English as she relates her story in the present tense and second person. The "you" is a free black man that she falls in love with when he comes to build Sir's desire: a folly of a mansion that no one ever gets to live in. Even tangential characters are thoroughly explored: the haunting a minha mãe of Florens story, Sorrow's mysterious and distracting other, and the indentured men who appear briefly in the main stories. Anyone, except the blacksmith, who isn't white and a man is a slave and even some who are white and men are slaves. Slavery is so basic a foundation to this economic system that it cannot be avoided. ( )
  jennifergeran | Dec 23, 2023 |
“America, whatever the danger, how could it possibly be worse?”
This may be a short novel, one of Morrison's last ones, but the feeling of disorientation that creeps up on you at the first reading is immediately reminiscent of Faulkner, also because of the American setting. Morrison had used the Faulknerian techniques of twisted perspectives and stream of consciousness before, but here she goes a step further. The result is that you only get a little insight into the story towards the end of the book, which immediately makes a second reading all the more rewarding. Because only then does the layering of this novel really come into its own.
The story may be opaque, but the context and themes provided by Morrison are not. The setting is the British colonies in what would later become the United States, at the end of the 17th century, so less than 100 years after their establishment. Morrison knows perfectly how to evoke the harshness and diversity of the inhabitants and the landscapes, at a time when the region still could evolve in all directions, and slavery, for instance, had only just made its appearance. The characters are equally diverse, although the narrative perspectives are mainly those of women. They are also all damaged people, displaced in the broadest sense of the word (the Europeans, the Native Americans, the Afro-Americans), and none of them are all good or all bad.
The title betrays the biblical undertone, and this is certainly present in other respects (including references to paradise, and to the suffering of Job). But it is mainly the precarious situation of the women that Morrison highlights, because she lets them do the talking most of the time. This book is by no means an easy read, but it once again demonstrates the power of literature to evoke an inscrutable world and make you think. ( )
  bookomaniac | Nov 18, 2022 |
Short, tragic, beautifully written book set in the late 17th century in the American Colonies. It speaks of slavery, indentured servitude, patriarchy, exploitation, superstition, disease, and child mortality. Prominent themes include fear of abandonment, lack of agency, and unintended consequences. The author elucidates the seeds of issues that still have repercussions today.

Morrison focuses this book on an ensemble of characters. Jacob Vaark finds slavery abhorrent but, at the urging of her mother, accepts Florens as partial payment of a debt. She joins Lina, an indentured servant from a native tribe, and Sorrow, a mixed-race orphan that survives a shipwreck, in laboring at the Vaark’s farm. Jacob’s wife, Rebekka, arrives from London as what we would call a mail order bride. Scully and Willard are two male indentured servants whose servitude keeps getting extended by dubious means. A free African blacksmith plays a key role. Through this dream-like narrative, the reader learns the backstories of these characters.

Morrison explores oppression based on gender, race, and class. She shows the heartbreak of mothers unable to protect their children. She writes expressively and packs a great deal into a slim novel. The sense of time and place is vivid. This is my first experience in reading Morrison’s work, and I look forward to reading more from her catalogue. A Mercy is an impressive book that conveys a powerful message in an artistic way.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
The landscape of “A Mercy” is full of both beauties and terrors: snow “sugars” eyelashes, yet icicles hang like “knives”; a stag is a benign and auspicious apparition, yet at night “the glittering eyes of an elk could easily be a demon.” But whatever the glories and the 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.
added by zhejw | editNew York Times, David Gates (Nov 28, 2008)
 
Morrison uses multiple narrators expertly (think also of Jazz), moving easily from third person to first, changing dictions and emphasis, fearlessly closing the novel with the previously unheard voice of Florens's mother. By doing so, she circles hawk-like around the moment of mercy, exploding its six degrees of repercussion from one life to the next, asking whether forgiveness or salvation is possible....

Although there's levity with a riotous tea party among the bawdy women who travel steerage with Rebekka, A Mercy is a sad, pessimistic novel, suspicious of the early makings of a democracy, unrelenting in leaving the unwanted unloved. And yet, the signature elements of Morrison's fiction—love turned inside out, history flipped on its head, biblical references, folk wisdom, ghosts, and an old-fashioned bloody, heart-wrenching tale—bring great relief. After the disappointing last two books, Paradise and Love, Toni Morrison's ninth novel roars across the arc of America's birth, wielding a prowess to haunt the reader as only Morrison can do.
 
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 once again -- 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.
 
Morrison structures the novel in her familiar manner, giving one chapter by turns to each competing voice, collapsing time frames, seldom letting her characters directly rub up against one another, trapping each of them in their biographies. In this way, she creates something that lives powerfully as an invented oral history and that seems to demand to be taken as a parable, but one whose meaning - which lives in the territory of harshness and sacrifice - is constantly undermined or elusive.
added by zhejw | editThe Guardian, Tim Adams (Oct 25, 2008)
 

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Toni Morrisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Engen, BodilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hoekmeijer, NicoletteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ràfols Gesa, FerranTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riera, ErnestTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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To R.G.
For decades of wit, insight and intellect
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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.
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I don't think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don't think he knows about us.
What I know is there is magic in learning.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In exchange for a bad debt, an Anglo-Dutch trader takes on Florens, a young slave girl, who feels abandoned by her slave mother and who searches for love--first from an older servant woman at her master's new home, and then from a handsome free blacksmith.

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EEN DAAD VAN BARMHARTIGHEID speelt zich af in Amerika tijdens de tweede helft van de zeventiende eeuw, de slavernij is nog in opkomst. Jacob Vaark is een avonturier en handelaar van Nederlandse afkomst die een bedrijfje heeft in het ruige Noorden. Hij is tegen mensenhandel, maar na aandringen van de moeder, accepteert hij toch een jong slavenmeisje als betaling. Ondanks de goede bedoelingen van de moeder voelt het meisje, Florens, zich door haar afgewezen. Ze gaat op zoek naar liefde, allereerst bij een oudere bediende van het huis, maar later ook bij een aantrekkelijke Afrikaanse hoefsmid, door wie haar leven in een stroomversnelling belandt.
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