A Mercy

By Toni Morrison
Publisher:Knopf, (11/11/2008)

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A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize–winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.

In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.
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 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

1. Florens addresses her story to the blacksmith she loves and writes: "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" (page 3). In what sense is her story a confession? What are the dreamlike "curiosities" it is filled with?

2. Florens writes to the blacksmith, "I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me" (page 5), and later, "Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here" (page 7). In what ways is Florens's use of language strikingly eccentric and poetic? What does the way she speaks and writes reveal about who she is and what her experience has been?

3. What does A Mercy reveal about Colonial America that is startling and new? In what ways does Morrison give this period in our history an emotional depth that cannot be found in text books?

4. A Mercy is told primarily through the distinctive narrative voices of Florens, Lina, Jacob, Rebekka, Sorrow, and, lastly, Florens's mother. What do these characters reveal about themselves through the way they speak? What are the advantages of such a multivocal narrative over one told through a single voice?

5. Jacob Vaark is reluctant to traffic in human flesh and determined to amass wealth honestly, without "trading his conscience for coin" (page 28). How does he justify making money from trading sugar produced by slave labor in Barbados? What larger point is Morrison making here?

6. How does Jacob's attitude toward his slaves/workers differ from that of the farmer who owns Florens's mother?

7. When Rebekka falls ill, Lina treats her with a mixture of herbs: devil's bit, mugwort, Saint-John's-wort, maidenhair, and periwinkle. She also considers "repeating some of the prayers she learned among the Presbyterians, but since none had saved Sir, she thought not" (page 50). What fundamental differences are suggested here between the practical, earth-based healing knowledge of Lina and the more ethereal prayers of the Presbyterians? What larger role does healing play in the novel?

8. Rebekka knows that even as a white woman, her prospects are limited to "servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest" (pages 77–78). And Lina, Sorrow, and Florens know that if their mistress dies, "three unmastered women … out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone" (page 58). What does the novel as a whole reveal about the precarious position of women, European and African, free and enslaved, in late-17th-century America?

9. Rebekka says she does not fear the violence in the colonies—the occasional skirmishes and uprisings—because it is so much less horrifying and pervasive than the violence in her home country of England. In what ways is "civilized" England more savage than "savage" America?

10. What role does the love story between Florens and the blacksmith play in the novel? Why does the blacksmith tell Florens that she is "a slave by choice" (page 141)?

11. When Florens asks for shelter on her journey to find the blacksmith, she is taken in by a Christian widow and her apparently "possessed" daughter Jane, whose soul she is trying to save by whipping her. And Rebekka experiences religion, as practiced by her mother, as "a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred" (page 74). How are Christians depicted in the novel? How do they regard Florens, and black people generally?

12. Lina tells Florens, "We never shape the world... The world shapes us" (page 71). What does she mean? In what ways are the main characters in the novel more shaped by than shapers of the world they inhabit?

13. Why does Florens's mother urge Jacob to take her? Why does she consider his doing so a mercy? What does her decision say about the conditions in which she and so many others like her were forced to live?

14. The sachem of Lina's tribe says of the Europeans: "Cut loose from the earth's soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples" (page 54). To what extent is this an accurate assessment? In what ways is A Mercy about the condition of being orphaned? What is the literal and symbolic significance of being orphaned or abandoned in the novel?

15. Why does Morrison choose to end the novel in the voice of Florens' s mother? How does the ending alter or intensify all that has come before it?

16. Why is it important to have a visceral, emotional grasp of what life was like, especially for Africans, Native Americans, and women, in Colonial America? In what ways has American culture tried to forget or whitewash this history?

17. Did you see the stunning twist at the novel's conclusion coming? If so, when and why? If not, why do you think it blindsided you?

18. How do the stories of the women in A Mercy serve as a prequel to the stories of the women in Beloved, which is set two centuries later?

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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Nobel laureate Morrison returns more explicitly to the net of pain cast by slavery, a theme she detailed so memorably in Beloved. Set at the close of the 17th century, the book details America's untoward foundation: dominion over Native Americans, indentured workers, women and slaves. A slave at a plantation in Maryland offers up her daughter, Florens, to a relatively humane Northern farmer, Jacob, as debt payment from their owner. The ripples of this choice spread to the inhabitants of Jacob's farm, populated by women with intersecting and conflicting desires. Jacob's wife, Rebekka, struggles with her faith as she loses one child after another to the harsh New World. A Native servant, Lina, survivor of a smallpox outbreak, craves Florens's love to replace the family taken from her, and distrusts the other servant, a peculiar girl named Sorrow. When Jacob falls ill, all these women are threatened. Morrison's lyricism infuses the shifting voices of her characters as they describe a brutal society being forged in the wilderness. Morrison's unflinching narrative is all the more powerful for its relative brevity; it takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go until the wrenching final-page crescendo. (Nov.) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 

From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Ron Charles Toni Morrison's new novel, A Mercy, makes a spellbinding companion to Beloved, her 1987 tour de force that transformed our understanding of slavery and won the Pulitzer Prize. Her old themes rise up in A Mercy like a fever dream: the horrible sacrifice a mother makes to protect her child, the deadly vanity of benevolent slaveholders, the abandonment of a past too painful to remember. But this is a smaller, more delicate novel, a fusion of mystery, history and longing that stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison's body of work. The lush poetry and amorphous structure of A Mercy reflect the story's distant setting in the mist of America's creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. The four abandoned women at the center of this novel -- one white, one Native American and two black -- are all enslaved in some way, struggling to maintain their precarious life together on a failing farm in the late 17th century when the New World's traditions of slavery are fresh and fluid. Summarizing the plot does a certain amount of violence to the novel's self-conscious obscurity, its determination to keep us off balance amid dazzling impressions. The opening chapter, in particular, is a swirl of references to people and events we can't comprehend. (Beloved, remember, began with the enigmatic words, "124 was spiteful.") Morrison relies heavily on the allure of her imagery, perhaps even on the deference afforded by her Nobel Prize. At this point in her career, she doesn't have to give up meanings any more easily than Faulkner or Joyce did, and like their work, A Mercy conveys powerful emotional effects even when it leaves us struggling for sure footing. "Don't be afraid," a narrator begins. "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." Jacob Vaark, a small-scale trader who was raised in an orphanage, inherited 120 acres in upstate New York from an uncle he'd never met. He considers slavery "the most wretched business" and insists that "flesh was not his commodity," but he works out a moral equation that allows him to make money as a financier to slaveholders. As we've seen before, Morrison writes with the kind of psychological nuance that turns her characters' souls to clear glass: An early scene shows Vaark sneering "at wealth dependent on a captured workforce," even while he profits from it. He eventually makes a fortune, all the while imagining that he's kept himself above "whips, chains and armed overseers." It's a brilliant portrayal of the expedient allowances people make to preserve their sense of purity and self-reliance. When he began farming, Vaark purchased a 14-year-old Native American named Lina who lost her village to a smallpox epidemic. She's a determined survivor, traumatized first by the death of her family, then by the Presbyterians who "civilize" her. "Terrified of being alone in the world," Morrison writes, "Lina acknowledged her status as heathen and let herself be purified by these worthies. She learned that bathing naked in the river was a sin; that plucking cherries from a tree burdened with them was theft; that to eat corn mush with one's fingers was perverse." Morrison turns the issue of servitude over and over in fascinating ways. This was, after all, a time before the spectrum of slavery had resolved into black and white. Almost everyone is for sale, and their relations with one another are bound by customs and laws still evolving. Together, Vaark and Lina manage his farm as best they can with an odd kind of mutual respect, but it is "an unrewarding life" until Vaark buys a wife from England, and again the results are surprising. "Rebekka's sheer good fortune in a husband stunned her," Morrison writes. "Already sixteen, she knew her father would have shipped her off to anyone who would book her passage and relieve him of feeding her . . . the stubborn one, the one with too many questions and a rebellious mouth." Vaark also takes in a strange young woman named Sorrow, and as partial payment for a debt, he acquires a slave girl named Florens. The only character who narrates her own chapters, Florens serves as the emotional engine of the novel and the mystery at its core. "They were orphans, each and all," Morrison writes. The real triumph of A Mercy is its portrayal of the moral ambiguity of these relationships. There are no easy judgments here. Vaark may be compromised by his financial entanglements with slavery, but he's a benevolent patriarch who gives safety to a cast of women who would have no security elsewhere in this place, surrounded by howling wilderness and settlements of religious zealots. What's happened and what's happening become clear only as several chapters confirm the scrambled chronology of these events: Jacob Vaark has died of smallpox and now his wife, Rebekka, is close to death, too. The farm, their little Eden in the lawless forest, is suddenly threatened with collapse, which can only mean something far worse for its female residents. Morrison depicted the plight of an isolated women's compound in Paradise in 1997, but in this more impressionistic novel she captures the state of powerless women contending for survival in a civilization that would not stabilize for decades. Without a master, they are all at risk; without even a white mistress, they would have no chance. "Sir and Mistress believed they could have honest free-thinking lives," Lina thinks with a sigh. "Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan. . . . Pride alone made them think they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere beholden to nothing except their own creations." Most of the novel takes place as Rebekka lies dying, Lina cares for her, and Sorrow asserts herself -- all three women remembering their lives before and with Vaark. But the heart of the novel is young Florens. She's sent off to find a blacksmith, a free black man who once worked on Vaark's property and may be able to heal Rebekka. For Florens, it's a chance not just to escape but to reunite with him. She propels herself through a frightening travail in the wilderness with an ardent, irrepressible monologue, much of it directed to her absent lover. Her voice is the most demanding but rewarding in the novel, thick with raw poetry and passion. "I never before see leaves make this much blood and brass," she says. "Color so loud it hurts the eye and for relief I must stare at the heavens high above the tree line." She's sometimes unhinged -- sympathetic one moment, animalistic the next. "These careful words, closed up and wide open, will talk to themselves," Florens says, and in the most mesmerizing sections of the novel, all we can do is listen to her incantations, the voice of a young woman consumed with yearning. "I dream a dream that dreams back at me," she says. "Perhaps these words need the air that is out in the world. Need to fly up then fall, fall like ash over acres of primrose and mallow. . . . I am become wilderness but I am also Florens. In full. Unforgiven. Unforgiving. No ruth, my love. None. Hear me? Slave. Free. I last." What a strange, affecting story, flowing through an astonishing range of emotions. And consider that all this takes place in just 167 pages, shorter than her far less complicated first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Whereas Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss. 
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

“A horrifying act stood at the center of Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterwork, Beloved: a runaway slave, caught in her effort to escape, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw, determined to spare the girl the fate she herself has suffered as a slave. A similarly indelible act stands at the center of Ms. Morrison’s remarkable new novella, A Mercy, a small, plangent gem of a story that is, at once, a kind of prelude to Beloved and a variation on that earlier book’s exploration of the personal costs of slavery–a system that moves men and women and children around ‘like checkers’ and casts a looming shadow over both parental and romantic love.

Set some 200 years before Beloved, A Mercy conjures up the beautiful, untamed, lawless world that was America in the 17th century with the same sort of lyrical, verdant prose that distinguished that earlier novel. . . . Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable. . . . A heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams, [that] also stands, with Beloved, as one of Ms. Morrison’s most haunting works yet.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Spellbinding . . . Dazzling . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison’s body of work. The lush poetry and amorphous structure of [the novel] reflect the story’s distant setting in the mist of America’s creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. . . . Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Where Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss.”
–Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

“Luminous and complex . . . In Beloved, Morrison told the story of Sethe, a woman who murdered her own child rather than see her sold into slavery. Early on in A Mercy,we watch a mother do the opposite–she puts her daughter Florens up for sale . . . It’s a less bloody moment, but in its way it’s no less chilling. A Mercy is that daughter’s tale. . . . Morrison is mooting the perversely hopeful possibility that slavery could have existed without racism or at least without racism as we know it. She lavishes some of her best writing in years on [A Mercy’s] pre-Revolutionary world . . . A Mercy shows us America in the moment before race madness ruined it–it is a wounded land, but the wound has not yet turned septic. . . . In A Mercy, Morrison is urging her younger self, the tortured soul who fashioned the infernal vision that is Beloved, to look even further–beyond the veil of pain and anger, however righteous, to hope. There was a time before the present misery, Morrison seems to be telling herself. And therefore, maybe, there will be a time after it.”
–Lev Grossman, Time

“Magnificent . . . As with all Morrison’s finest work, A Mercy compellingly combines immediacy and obliquity. Its evocation of pioneer existence in America surrounds you with sensuous intensity. . . . An attack by a bear is described with thrilling power. . . . Idioms have potent directness, too. . . . Rich knowledgeability about 17th-century America is put to telling effect. Voices speak to you as if you were there. . . . The book keeps you vividly aware of the vital human individuality that racism’s crude categorizations are brutally trying to iron out. . . . A stark story of the evils of possessiveness and the perils of dispossession emerges slantwise. Hints, suspicions, secrets, ambivalences, scarcely acknowledged motives and barely noticeable nuances serve as signposts to enormities and desperations: around slavery’s large-scale uprootings, Morrison spotlights individual instances of loss (orphans and outcasts are, as often in her fiction, much in evidence; compensatory alliances they form are warmly portrayed). A Mercy is so enthralling that you’ll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.”
–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)

“In [A Mercy,] a mother chooses to give her daughter to a stranger, the man who will ‘own’ her, in hopes that she’ll find a better life. It is this act from which the book derives its title, but it is, of course, an ambivalent gesture whose tragic resonance will be slowly unveiled. . . . Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called ‘the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.’ Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play. . . . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope.”
–Renée Graham, Boston Sunday Globe

“[A Mercy] examines slavery through the prism of power, not race. Morrison achieves this by setting A Mercy in 1680s America, when slavery was a color-blind, equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become. . . . Morrison doesn’t write traditional novels so much as create a hypnotic state of poetic intoxication. You don’t read A Mercy, you fall into a miasma of language and symbolism. [It] offers an original vision of America in its primeval state, where freedom was a rare commodity.”
–Deirdre Donahue, USA Today 

“[Toni Morrison] bound[s] into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a doe. A Mercy . . . is that beguiling and beautiful, that deftly condensed, that sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity. . . . Finely hammered phrases repeatedly come off the anvil, forming a story as powerful as the many she has shaped before. Elements of this writer’s art from way back remain part of her achievement here. Like a mighty telescope perched on a contemporary plateau, Morrison draws in signals, moods, torments, exhilarations from African American life and history . . . Morrison mixes the verbal music of an era with idiosyncratic wisdom, delivered indirectly rather than ex cathedra, recalling omniscient Russian masters without imitating them. . . . Along the way come moments whose artistry freezes one’s page-turning. Morrison’s tactile reports rivet . . . What’s the opposite of ‘lazy’ in a fiction writer’s style and research? Industrious? Indefatigable? Morrison wears her knowledge lightly, yet every page exhibits her control of [the 17th century’s] objects and artifacts, its worries and dangers. She surrounds A Mercy’s more fanciful arabesques with a broad border of realism. . . . A book as masterfully wrought as A Mercy behooves its author to swagger. Go to it, Ms. Morrison.”
–Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A grand tragedy writ in miniature . . . Women, men, Africans, Native Americans, whites, masters, slaves–all are cast into the hard world that is the New World in Toni Morrison’s lustrous new novel. In the same way, the Nobel Prize winner casts us into her hypnotic, many-voiced narrative set in the 17th century in a nation yet unformed. . . . We’re beguiled from the opening sentence: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The speaker is Florens, black, barely out of childhood, a slave but literate, whose eager-to-please ways and lyrical language endear her to us and to the Virginia household of Jacob Vaark. . . . The subject of [A Mercy] is slavery, and [Morrison] brings to it, along with some of her most haunting language, elements of history and mythos. . . . A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Belovedas ‘awful human power.’ . . . This novel’s release coincides with the presidential election of Barack Obama, a shining moment in our country’s history of which Morrison’s characters can barely dream.”
–Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald

“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 [as in Beloved]–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. . . . [It is] a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called [Morrison’s] ‘noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.’ The story assumes even greater metaphorical power at this particular moment, with the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president.”
–Judith Freeman, Los Angeles Times Book Review 

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Toni Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities, Emerita, at Princeton University. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in Rockland County, New York, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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