Updated: Sep 20, 2019
A Mercy by Toni Morrison was a powerful read. The story was set in Maryland in 1690, during the early days of slavery. It was told from the point of view of various characters, mainly the women in the story, but a few of the male characters as well.
I find that with any of the Toni Morrison books I’ve read, they can be a bit slow moving and difficult to get into for the first chapter or two. However, if I push through, it’s definitely worth the effort. The language, tone, and grammar changes drastically between chapters as the point of view switches from character to character.
I found the chapters from Florens most difficult to read, because her chapters were written how she spoke. While she was literate, which was uncommon for a slave (or many people for that matter) in those times, her spoken language was a mixture of English with references to her mother in Portuguese (“I see a minha mãe standing hand in hand with her little boy,”) verbs that are often written as nouns (“I am shock,”) and at times a lack of punctuation (“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.”) Her chapters seem to be more of a stream of consciousness than prose. It breaks my heart to put myself in Florens’ shoes and think of how it must have felt to be willingly given up by a mother at a young age, without ever understanding why.
Jacob Vaark is a trader, and enjoys adventure. He comes from humble beginnings, and finds opportunity in the New World. He visits D’Ortega, a Portuguese plantation owner, to collect a debt, and is disgusted by the man’s excesses alongside his inability to repay his debts. As partial repayment, he is offered his choice of any slave on the plantation. Morrison uses surprisingly beautiful language to describe a horrifying appraisal: “D’Ortega identifying talents, weaknesses and possibilities, but silent about the scars, the wounds like misplaced veins tracing their skin.” He ends up choosing the slave that D’Ortega wants to part with the least, his best cook who is still nursing her young son, but she offers up her daughter instead. Florens winds up going to Jacob’s farm.
On Jacob’s farm, we are introduced to another character, Lina. She is a Native American, whose village was wiped out due to smallpox. We also learn that Jacob is not your average slaveholder. His farm is small and run by only a few people, mostly women. The household functions as more of a family unit rather than a master/slave relationship, although some aspects are still preserved, with Lina and Florens sleeping outside the house with the farm animals. Jacob and his wife are not cruel to the slaves, and treat them fairly. Lina functions as a mother figure to Florens, who is desperate for affection and a mother’s presence.
Other characters are introduced slowly. Rebekka, Jacob’s wife, who left England amidst poverty and religious persecution, with few options available to her, to be the wife of a man she had never met and knew nothing about. Luckily for her, Jacob was a good man and it was a suitable match. Sorrow, another woman in the house, who spent her early years on a ship and was found amidst the ruins of a shipwreck, doesn’t speak about her past and seems to be a mysterious character. She was given to Jacob because the family who had originally taken her in was unwilling to keep her. Willard and Scully are two white men who are indentured servants that sometimes help out around the farm.
Finally, perhaps the most devastating voice in the entire book, is Florens’ mother. She explains why she offered Florens to Jacob. The psychological effects of slavery are horrifying for not just the child, but for entire families. This book really brought that perspective home for me. The trauma stayed with Florens’ mother for all this time, but Florens’ was traumatized as well. She was left craving approval, affection, love, acceptance, freedom, and her place in this world. It had devastating and far-reaching consequences, not just for Florens and her mother, but for others as well.
In the end, many questions were answered, but I still wanted more. I wanted to keep reading, to keep finding out more about the lives of everyone involved. To me, that’s when I know a book was truly great. When I can’t stop reading it but then drag my feet at the end because I don’t want to finish and be done with it. This was one of those gems. This book gets all the stars.
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