Morrison’s ‘A Mercy’ is a gem
“A Mercy,” by Toni Morrison. Knopf. 2008. 176 pp. $23.95.
By Jenni Koerner
For the Salisbury Post
Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison’s stunning new release, “A Mercy,” accomplishes in 167 pages what many novels twice the size never manage to achieve ó lyrical prose plus a story that keeps readers turning pages to the very end.
The setting is Colonial America, before the Revolutionary War. With amazing historical detail, Morrison captures a broad array of social injustices that existed in the struggling New World: slavery, religious indoctrination, patriarchy and the forced assimilation of Native Americans.
The characters include not only African slaves, but also Native Americans pressed into servitude, white indentured servants who were slaves by any other name, and poor European women brought over as mail order brides.
One of the novel’s greatest ironies is the idea that bondage can also be self-imposed. We learn how people, free or otherwise, can be slaves to their desire for power and privilege, and trapped in religious or cultural intolerance.
The main character is Florens, a 16-year-old African slave whose mother has allowed another master to take her daughter as payment for a debt. Although this emotionally scars Florens for life, we learn the reason why her mother made the awful choice to cast off her own, which, without giving too much away, potentially spares Florens an even worse fate.
“Don’t be afraid,” Florens says in the first sentence of the novel. She is on a dangerous errand for her owner, but Florens also has a more personal stake in the mission ó to reunite with the one she loves, a never enslaved African man trained in medicine.
The novel, however, is not a singular story. It illuminates Florens’ physical and spiritual journey through the multiple viewpoints of vividly sketched characters, each one with their own harrowing past and uncertain future. The novel is unflinching in its description of the constant presence of death and disease, including virulent smallpox that threatens at every turn.
While the novel’s form is somewhat experimental and the plot far too elaborate to summarize, suffice it to say that the cruel lessons of mercy are conveyed, and we see how our ancestors from so long ago had the same basic feelings and needs as we do today.
Morrison is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, “Beloved,” which was made into a motion picture in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton. If you enjoyed that novel or the movie it spawned, then you will surely like “A Mercy.”
A short and compressed gem, it tells a searing emotional tale with ferocious historical accuracy, and leaves the reader in the presence of enduring moral truths.