Over the weekend, I picked up my copy of A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, which I received for Christmas. Seeing as it’s July, perhaps I was intimidated by Morrison’s Nobel Prize pedigree; maybe it’s also that I have been reading so many detective novels by James Lee Burke and John Sandford instead! I’ve read a couple of other Morrison books (Song of Solomon, Beloved, Paradise), and I recall them as pieces of literature that have a lot of weight and emotion to them. You really have to be in the right frame of mind to pick up a book that you know will be wrenching, and A Mercy certainly is that. Set in 1690, it deals with a dark, frightening time in American history, when slavery was a steady business, Native Americans were being overrun by Europeans (or, as they are called in the book, “Europes”), and life was independent of much government or community oversight.
A Mercy was hard to get into, because the first chapter is told in the voice of an enslaved sixteen-year-old girl named Florens. Her mother had given her up in order to save her from her current leering owner, a Portuguese man. Florens’ voice is hard to get through because it’s far from standard English and it’s stream-of-consciousness. If you’re willing to push through to the next couple of chapters, the story pulls together cohesively, so you learn who the characters are. But it’s a challenge to the reader: are you ready for a book that isn’t easy?
However, once I was able to sort out the characters (Florens, her masters Jacob and Rebekka, the Indian woman who lives on their farm named Lina, a fellow slave girl named Sorrow, and others), I found myself drawn in, and I had a hard time putting it down. What I came away with was a sense of a dark time, when life was precarious.
Here’s a quotation from the final chapter, told in the voice of Florens’ mother:
Barbados, I heard them say. After times and times of puzzle about why I could not die as others did. After pretending to be so in order to get thrown overboard. Whatever the mind plans, the body has other interests. So to Barbados where I found relief in the clean air and standing up straight under a sky the color of home….One by one we were made to jump high, to bend over, to open our mouths. The children were best at this. Like grass trampled by elephants, they sprang up to try life again. They had stopped weeping long ago….I was burning sweat in cane only a short time when they took me away to sit on a platform in the sun. It was there I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita. Everything. Language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song — all of it cooked together in the color of my skin.