A Mercy

A Mercy

November 11, 2008

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery in early America....

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Historical Fiction

224 Pages

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A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery in early America.

A Mercy is Toni Morrison's ninth novel. It was published in 2008. A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery in early America. It is both the story of mothers and daughters and the story of a primitive America. It made the New York Times Book Review list of "10 Best Books of 2008" as chosen by the paper's editors. In Fall 2010 it was chosen for the One Book, One Chicago program.

Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019), known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she gained worldwide recognition when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.


Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English and just two years from Cornell University with a master's in American Literature. She later taught English at Howard University, was married, and had two children before divorcing in 1964. In the late 1960s, she became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. In the 1970s and 1980s, she developed her own reputation as an author, and her perhaps most celebrated work, Beloved, was made into a 1998 film.


In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Also that year, she was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.



    1975: Ohioana Book Award for Sula

    1977: National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon

    1977: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award

    1987–88: Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

    1988: Helmerich Award    1988: American Book Award for Beloved

    1988: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations for Beloved

    1988: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved

    1988: Frederic G. Melcher Book Award for Beloved

    1988: Ohioana Career Medal for contributions to education, literature, and the humanities

    1988: Honorary Doctor of Laws at University of Pennsylvania

    1989: Honorary Doctor of Letters at Harvard University

    1993: Nobel Prize in Literature

    1993: Commander of the Arts and Letters, Paris

    1994: Condorcet Medal, Paris

    1994: Rhegium Julii Prize for Literature

    1996: Jefferson Lecture

    1996: National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

    1997: Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Gustavus Adolphus College.

    2000: National Humanities Medal

    2002: 100 Greatest African Americans, list by Molefi Kete Asante

    2005: Honorary Doctorate of Letters from University of Oxford

    2008: New Jersey Hall of Fame inductee

    2009: Norman Mailer Prize, Lifetime Achievement

    2010: Officier de la Légion d'Honneur

    2010: Institute for Arts and Humanities Medal for Distinguished Contributions to the Arts and Humanities from the Pennsylvania State University

    2011: Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction

    2011: Honorary Doctor of Letters at Rutgers University Graduation Commencement

    2011: Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Geneva

    2012: Presidential Medal of Freedom

    2013: The Nichols-Chancellor's Medal awarded by Vanderbilt University

    2013: Honorary Doctorate of Literature awarded by Princeton University

    2013: PEN Oakland - Josephine Miles Literary Award for Home

    2013: Writer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome (RAAR)

    2014: Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award given by the National Book Critics Circle

    2016: PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction

    2016: The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry (The Norton Lectures), Harvard University

    2016: The Edward MacDowell Medal, awarded by the MacDowell Colony

    2018: The Thomas Jefferson Medal, awarded by The American Philosophical Society



Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children (2008) – Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake?

Florens, a slave, lives and works on Jacob Vaark's rural New York farm. Lina, a Native American and fellow laborer on the Vaark farm, relates in a parallel narrative how she became one of a handful of survivors of a smallpox plague that destroyed her tribe. Vaark's wife Rebekka describes leaving England on a ship for the new world to be married to a man she has never seen. The deaths of their subsequent children are devastating, and Vaark accepts a young Florens from a debtor in the hopes that this new addition to the farm will help alleviate Rebekka'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 a new and alien environment filled with danger and disease. When smallpox threatens Rebekka's life, Florens, now 16, 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 the relationship between men and women in early America that often ended in female victimization. They are "of and for men", people who "never shape the world, The world shapes us". As the women journey toward self-enlightenment, Morrison often describes their progress in Biblical cadences, and by the end of this novel, the reader understands the significance of the title, "a mercy".




Tim Adams

n her essay 'Playing in the Dark', Toni Morrison looked back to the founding of America and observed: 'What was distinctive in the New World was, first of all, its claim to freedom, and second, the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.' This sentiment - that ideals of economic and political liberty were dependent on brutal enslavement - is the starting place of all her work, and this, her first novel for five years, is another distillation of it. In her essays and novels, she has pursued - and mostly won - the argument that the history and literature of America were predicated on the exclusion of the black part of its population, that the myths of nation-building contained an explicit or an unspoken 'us' and 'them'. That this book will be published in the week before her nation may choose a President who for the first time could eclipse that divide, who could make 'them' 'us', lends it a fundamental resonance.


In some ways, A Mercy is a prequel to Morrison's most comprehensive and unanswerable expression of those ideas, Beloved, recently voted the greatest American novel of the last 25 years in the New York Times. It is set at a time just before the earliest parts of Beloved, before bonded labour became a principal foundation of American wealth, when that grotesque idea was just forming in the marketplace.


Jacob Vaark enters that marketplace from Europe. He has found his way through Atlantic fog, dropped off at an unnamed coast by unnamed sloopmen, wading 'over pebbles and sand to shore', across mud and swamp grass, over boarded planks finally to a village, mimicking the advance of civilisation. Vaark has no illusion about where he has come to: '1682 and Virginia was still a mess.' Half-a-dozen years before, 'an army of blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes - freedmen, slaves and indentured - had waged war against the local gentry'. This failed 'people's war' produced a thicket of new laws that were to shape the nation's history: 'By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only; by granting licence to any white to kill any black for any reason; by compensating owners for a slave's maiming or death, they separated and protected whites from all others for ever.'


Morrison makes Vaark a Johnny Appleseed idealist (she is keen on suggestive names - he is Virginia's Noah: VA's ark). He has a parcel of land to farm, he has notions about how he will cultivate a virtuous fortune and he has advertised for a capable wife from England to share this optimism.

The 16-year-old Rebekka duly arrives. When the novel opens, however, Vaark's ideals are floundering: he has lost three sons soon after childbirth; his daughter, aged five, has been killed by a kick from a horse, 'unleavening' his wife. The farm is not as profitable as he had hoped. All this is in his mind as he travels to Maryland to claim a debt from a tobacco plantation owner, a Señor D'Ortega. When Vaark arrives at the plantation, it is clear there is no money to pay him. D'Ortega instead offers him payment in that other fluid currency, human flesh.


Vaark is outraged by this offer. D'Ortega's line-up of two dozen of his chained workers brings to Vaark's Protestant mind a 'silence that made him imagine an avalanche seen from a great distance. No sound just the knowledge of a roar he couldn't hear'. He has a conscience, still. Even so, to avoid embarrassment, he reluctantly receives what's owing to him in the form of a little girl, Florens - her name itself is loose change - whom he spots wearing some of Señora Ortega's cast-off shoes.


This act is the mercy of the book's title. It is a profoundly small mercy, of course, but, at her mother's wish, Florens's life is passed from the cruelties of Ortega's plantation to the relative ease of Vaark's farm. The transaction has exacted another price, however; it has added to the irresolution in Vaark's mind. Why should this Ortega have the big house, and the fine clothes, while he struggles with his farming and restraint? At an inn, he falls into conversation with another man, who sets out to him the flavour of the new economics. The future is in sugar, in molasses, in rum (and, by inference, in mass slave labour). Sugar is not like fur, tobacco or lumber. There is 'no loss of investment. None. Ever. No crop failure. No wiped-out beaver or fox. No war to interfere. Crop plentiful, eternal. Slave workers, same. Buyers eager. Product, heavenly...'


Vaark is tempted by the invisible hand of this new market, not least because geography salves his 'liberal' conscience. 'There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [Ortega's plantation] and a remote labour force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars.'


Investing in the Barbados plantations is one of Vaark's last acts in the novel, but it is a defining decision in American history - it represents the moment when it was determined that the engine of capitalism in the New World would be slave labour in distant lands. Having set up his offshore commodity business - and created the world in which the women in his life will live - we next see him, considerably richer, dying of smallpox, leaving his young wife to farm their estate with the help of their three accommodated girls: Florens, now grown to be a teenager; Lina, their native American servant, taken in as an orphan; and Sorrow, the daughter of a sea captain, made simple-minded from almost dying in a shipwreck, another foundling on whom Vaark took pity. In these four representative souls, Morrison might have you believe, lay the best hopes of the nation.


Each of the women seems locked inside her own head, and inside her own fate. All of them are slaves in different ways. Shipped over from England, Rebekka had to choose between the prospects of 'servant, prostitute or wife', and though horrible stories were told about each of those careers, 'the last one seemed the safest'. Lina has witnessed a fall from the Eden of her childhood - her tribe was wiped out by a plague - and she clings to 'the Mistress' as the only stability in her broken world. Sorrow changes her name over the course of the novel - she has a daughter and becomes Complete. Florens, meanwhile, swaps one slavery for another; she becomes infatuated with the blacksmith who comes to the estate, a freed slave from New Amsterdam, who wants nothing of her submission.


Morrison structures the novel in her familiar manner, giving one chapter by turns to each competing voice, collapsing time frames, seldom letting her characters directly rub up against one another, trapping each of them in their biographies. In this way, she creates something that lives powerfully as an invented oral history and that seems to demand to be taken as a parable, but one whose meaning - which lives in the territory of harshness and sacrifice - is constantly undermined or elusive.


Rebekka's voice is, in the present of the novel, delirious with fever - she has her husband's illness and, as a result, the world of all four women is reeling on its axis. Without the Mistress, none of the servant girls will have a place anywhere and without the assistance of her servant girls, Rebekka will die. It is on these kinds of paradoxes of mutual female dependency that Morrison builds her brief vision of America's genesis. Florens has gone to the blacksmith for help and, in her journey, for a moment, all of her nation's possibilities seem to lie: 'How long will it take will he be there will she get lost will someone assault her will she return will he and is it already too late? For salvation.'


Since winning the Nobel Prize in 1993, Morrison has, not altogether reluctantly, taken on the voice of America's conscience. After the marvels of empathy that were Beloved and, to a lesser extent, Jazz, that public voice has grown - she has sometimes seemed a spokeswoman rather than a writer - and the voice of her novels has become sparer. In this book, a good deal of Morrison's stark, almost biblical imaginative power is on display, without all of her former detailing energy. Nathaniel Hawthorne has become her model in some ways; like him, she is capable of creating fictional environments in which everything can come to seem symbolic. Portentous is not always a comfortable tone, but in the coming American weeks it may well be the appropriate one. The first line of A Mercy? 'Don't be afraid.



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