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A Mercy Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 11, 2008
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Top Customer Reviews
The novel reads quickly. You could finish it in a few hours if you were so inclined. I preferred to slow down and savor the contents. I will return this book again, after giving it a season on my shelf. It will never go to the library donation pile in my lifetime! Although I may be a bibliophile, in the extreme I would preserve only a few (hundred) books. This will be one of them.
Morrison uses shifting points of view to bring this short novel to life. The story unfolds through the eyes of each major character, although only one, Florens, speaks in the first person. Her voice is entirely in a vernacular, lacking conventional punctuation and sentence structure. The first few pages are moderately difficult to understand, but it becomes steadily more intelligible as you progress. The varied points of view remind me of The Sound and the Fury, especially in the opening chapter. But Florens is no Benjy, and Morrison's narrative bears only a superficial resemblance to Faulkner's. Although there is plenty of sorrow, and broken relationships all around, there is not a tone of hopeless cynicism.
I went back to read the first chapter several times, discovering more each time. You cannot understand some things at first. For example: "If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and sure enough that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron." This is a pivotal moment, but I did not recognize it as such on a first read. Sometimes I don't care for writers who show things early, and explain them later. Morrison is such a good writer that I didn't mind at all. I don't think that you will mind either.
I do not call Morrison a feminist or black writer. I believe those words will put unreasonable limits on how I might think about her work. Her writing reaches beyond the narrow concerns of our present day, to universal truths. She does not gloss over the brutalities and prejudices of slavery, or the lot of women in the 17th century. Far from it. But there are even larger things at stake here. In A Mercy I met myself where I least expected. I recognized myself in Florens, in Lina, in Jacob and even in Sorrow. To see yourself in another is the beginning of love. To give that gift to a reader is a great achievement.
Florens lives and works for the next eight years on Vaark's rural New York farm. Lina, a Native American, who works with her, tells in a parallel narrative how she became one of a handful of survivors of a plague that killed her tribe. Vaark's wife Rebekkah describes leaving England for New York to be married to a man she has never seen. The deaths of their subsequent children are devastating, and Vaark is hoping that eight-year-old Florens will help alleviate Rebekkah's loneliness. Vaark, himself an orphan and poorhouse survivor, describes his journeys from New York to Maryland and Virginia, commenting on the role of religion in the culture of the different colonies, along with their attitudes toward slavery.
All these characters are bereft of their roots, struggling to survive in an alien environment filled with danger and disease. When smallpox threatens Rebekkah's life in 1692, Florens, now sixteen, is sent to find a black freedman who has some knowledge of herbal medicines. Her journey is dangerous, ultimately proving to be the turning point in her life.
Morrison examines the roots of racism going back to slavery's earliest days, providing glimpses of the various religious practices of the time, and showing how all the women are victimized. They are "of and for men," people who "never shape the world, The world shapes us." As the women journey toward self-enlightenment, Morrison describes their progress in often Biblical cadences, and by the end of this novel, the reader understands what "a mercy" really means. An intense and thought-provoking look at various forms of slavery from their beginnings, this short novel has an epic scope, one which admirers of Morrison will celebrate for its intense thematic development, even as they may somewhat regret its sacrifice of fully developed characters. Mary Whipple
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