Martin Luther King holiday book review: Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

Over the holiday weekend, I finally had an opportunity to sit down and read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.  As a colonial American women’s historian, it would have been a must-read for me anyway, but Morrison’s book surpassed my already high expectations.  I don’t know how useful my review of the book will be to non-historians, but in keeping with the spirit of the day, I’ll offer a review of the book along with some thoughts about using novels in history classes after the jump.  Spoiler alert:  continue reading only if you don’t mind learning a few key plot details!

A Mercy is vintage Morrison.  She creates a world in which damaged women in the 1680s and 1690s both succor each other as well as perpetuate their legacies of violence and abuse.  As the enslaved mother on a Maryland plantation who offers her young daughter to be sold while clinging to her infant son explains, “there was no protection and nothing in the catechism to tell them no,” 162-63.  Fearful that her master already had designs on her pre-pubescent daughter, the mother hoped that selling Florens to Jacob Vaark would be “a mercy,” because “I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight,” 168.  Although this makes perfect logical sense in colonial America, where “[t]here is no protection.  To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal,” 163, Florens experiences this as her mother’s rejection in favor of a boy child, and her feelings of rejection will exact a price later on in Florens’ life.  Vaark takes Florens back to a farm (probably in New York*) where she joins a whole cast of orphans of the colonial world:  Lina, an enslaved Native American who becomes a mother to Florens; Sorrow, a traumatized and probably mentally ill indentured servant; Rebekka Vaark, sent to America as a bride for hire and distraught by the deaths of all four of her children; and Vaark himself, who grew up as a workhouse orphan.  The visit to the farm by a free African American blacksmith serves as a catalyst that changes this improvised “family” forever.  The novella is told in alternating chapters that focus on each of their lives in turn, interspersed by chapters written in the first person by Florens and her mother.

Morrison’s novella (at 167 pages) offers a portrait of colonial America that captures the zeitgeist of the current historiography.  Her colonial America is studiously multiethnic and multiconfessional, with a Portuguese Catholic plantation owner, African-born slaves, a Dutch farmer, his English wife, and their Indian, African American, and Euro-American bound workforce.  But this is not a seventeenth-century version of “Free to Be…You and Me.”  Don’t look to Morrison for portrayals of close-knit, functional communities united in barn-raisings, sharing harvest feasts, or joining together in militias to fight a common foe–there are no “little commonwealths” in this story.  Groups of people united by religion or a cause are menacing and promise only further injury and alienation.  They hurt others either by excluding them, as with the Anabaptist congregation that lives near Vaark’s farm, or (in one very strange scene) by subjecting Florens an impromptu humiliating witchcraft investigation.  The natural world also looms large in Morrison’s tale, increasing the sense of alienation and of the terrifying randomness of fate.  The New World is lush and hyperfertile, nourishing magnificent (and terrifying) old-growth forests and productive farms, but it also offers up horrors like angry bears and smallpox.  This is an environment so threatening that every child born in the course of the story dies, save one.  While there are individual acts of kindness, or mercies, performed by characters in the book, all of the characters in this story remain quite alone as individuals damaged by disease, warfare, violence, and brutal exploitation.

Morrison’s book is fascinating in its nuanced portraits of the women characters who have different experiences because of race and class, but they are ultimately united by their vulnerability as women in a man’s world.  Much like the natural environment, free men are portrayed as powerful and unpredictable forces in women’s lives, with an emphasis on their sexual subjection to boys and men.  None of the women escape:  Florens’ mother recounts in detail her rapes in slavery, Lina too was abused, Sorrow was raped by the sons of the first family she worked for after she was rescued from a shipwreck, and even consensual sex is dangerous, when we see how Florens’ consuming passion for the free blacksmith leads to violence.  Rebekka was fortunate to have married Jacob, but as a young bride for hire sold by her father, her body and sexuality were not her own, and she could have been sold to a brute as well as a kind man.  Morrison notes that it’s not just gender, but freedom and power (or the lack thereof) that makes people sexually vulnerable:  In addition to the bound women laborers, there are also two Euro-American hired hands on Vaark’s farm, one of whom was raped as a boy by an Anglican priest.

As opposed to the interview she gave to NPR a few months ago, in which she suggested that indentured servitude was equivalent to African chattel slavery, Morrison’s appreciation for the ways that class, race, and gender intersect is nuanced and accurate.  Although the women on Vaark’s farm are united by their subjection by men, they are not liberated when Vaark dies but rather cast into an even more vulnerable state by Rebekka Vaark’s economic vulnerability.  She retreats into a cold Anabaptist piety alone, while making plans to sell the other women.  As one of the indentured men notes, “[p]erhaps their wages were not as much as the blacksmith’s, but for [the indentured men] it was enough to imagine a future,” 156.  The bound women of Vaark’s farm, whose work earned them nothing, had no such advantages with which to plan a future.

In his review of A Mercy, Ortho at Baudrillard’s Bastard suggested that the book “would work wonderfully in a class on Colonial America,” but he didn’t elaborate as to teaching strategies.  I’d like to hear from other historians about how you use novels in history classes.  If any of you have read A Mercy, do you have ideas for incorporating it into your teaching?  I like the book very much, but because it’s so true to the way I think about colonial America, I’m not sure how I would use it in a class.  (As a feminist women’s historian, I don’t assign very many books that present a consensus view of colonial America, so it’s not like I could set it up against a book that portrays colonial society as a place that is free of conflict and functional for most people.)  I haven’t done it since my first year of teaching, but Morrison’s fine effort makes me wonder if I should try it.

*I say probably in New York colony, because although Morrison never says, she suggests that the Vaark farm is at some distance from Virginia and Maryland.  (She writes of Vaark’s journey to the Chesapeake region as one in which “[i]n his own geography, he was moving from Algonquin to Sesquehanna via Chesapeake on through Lenape,” and suggests that “he paid scant attention to old or new names of towns or forts:  Fort Orange; Cape Henry; Nieuw Amsterdam; Witlwyck,” 13.)  Furthermore, Vaark is clearly a Dutch name, and at one point Rebekka writes a note identifying her address as “Milton,” which is a town in New York on the Hudson River.

0 thoughts on “Martin Luther King holiday book review: Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

  1. p.s. to the banned commenter David, who is attempting to post comments here under the name “Aloysius” from new IP addresses: you are still banned. I don’t understand why you would want to post comments here where you are not wanted. That you continue to attemtpt to do so nearly eight months later is at the very least childish, if not disturbed and stalker-like. If in fact you have intellectual business in the world, please go pursue it and leave the community at alone. You are not welcome here, and nothing you do will change that fact.


  2. Our students (even some majors) call all books that we assign “novels,” so this kind of undercuts the pedagogic analysis, except perhaps for a chance to do what English departments have apparently stopped doing, viz. teaching about genre distinctions.

    I liked the part about “no little commonwealths.” It ill behooves us to imagine that 17th century pluralism or diversity where it existed anticipated in any coherent way the toleration we like to celebrate today. Penn’s Quakers arrived closer to the end of the 30 Years’ War (and shortly before Salem!) than to the onset of the High Enlightenment, and even they regressed a bit (as evidenced by toleration–for slaveowning!!) before moving back toward utopian idealism late in the colonial period. Self-segregation and a good deal of management of sorts that we still probably don’t understand too well yet was required to avert balkanization and its consequences. (Where it was averted at all).

    Vaark is indeed “pig” in Dutch, so it doesn’t exactly predict good times under the new proprietor! The route from “Algonquin” *through* the Susquehanna and/or Hudson corridors might suggest a location north and east of New Netherland. What other clues are there to the new location? Dutch people did sometimes spill outside of their initial political boundaries. Milton doesn’t sound too authentically colonial, at least for N.Y.


  3. Great pickup on the “pig” reference, Indyanna–I was clueless! He actually is a very decent person, certainly compared to most men at the time. There’s a sadness on the farm that Vaark very much shares in, due to the deaths of all of those babies and children.

    As for Milton: maybe that’s just a name Morrison picked out of a hat, as it were. Milton, NY looks not to have been founded until close to the American Rev., so perhaps thats not the place where Morrison’s story is set. Read the novel, and you figure out the coordinates for the Vaark farm!


  4. Thank you for the thoughtful review. I enjoy teaching novels in my courses, though I think it should be done sparingly and selectively. I find it helps me achieve what I struggle to do in my lectures and other discussions: engage students’ empathy and imagination.


  5. Indyanna — Big ouch from the English profs of Roxie’s World, who battle every day of their working lives to maintain the purity of genres. Perhaps we could blame the media for subjecting students to a steady diet of mixed-genre fare — “infotainment,” etc. Or perhaps we should hold the writers themselves to account. Fie on Morrison for writing “historical fiction” and Dickinson for hiding poems in letters and vice versa. We applaud Historiann’s inclination to bring the novel into the history classroom and promise to advise her on how to teach her students the distinctive and unchanging features of each of the literary genres — as soon as we’re finished re-reading Don DeLillo’s Libra for the real story of the Kennedy assassination. 😉


  6. MT–thanks for your comment. Empathy and imagination are important, but ultimately, I want the readings in my classes to accomplish something more substantial. How might you set up a novel like this in an intellectual exercise, like a paper assignment? What would it do that a historical publication would not? (Roxie, this is a question for you, too.)

    For you colonial historians out there, I’m thinking of Breen and Innes’s Myne Own Ground as an example of a microhistory that illustrates the possibilities, and the foreclosed options, that Africans and Europeans alike faced in the English New World colonies in the 17th C. The main thing Morrison’s book does that most colonial history books don’t is to highlight women’s experiences. This by the way is what I’m trying to do with the book I’m writing, although it is of course a non-fiction book (as much as possible, anyway). I have’t yet read Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival yet–can anyone comment on that title? My guess is that might accomplish the same thing as Morrison’s novel, but in more specific and evidence-based ways.

    And, Roxie–that’s a really great book! DeLillo is one of our few modern novelists whose works tend to revolve around history. I think he’s fascinating.


  7. Lovely review! While I was reading it, I was thinking of reviewing it, but thought, “Historiann will do a much better job.” I agree with you that Morrison portrays a colonial world that is nasty and brutish. The communities that she shows are either outlaws (the fugitive group), narrow and closed (the Anabaptists and Puritans and even the Presbyterians who cast out Lina after her rape), or very tenuous (the central one).

    The central community on Vaark’s farm is the most varied, but the essentially powerless state of all of it’s inhabitants other than Vaark cause them to turn on one another the minute that he is gone. No one except perhaps Vaark is free in any sense of the word. Since historical fiction is as much about the author’s time as the historical period depicted, I think Morrison is saying something about the unity (or lack thereof) among women and other disempowered people.

    As for using a novel in the classroom, my students, like Indyanna’s, tend to call anything book-shaped a “novel.” I’ve had two different experiences with actual novels. I was a t.a. for a teacher who assigned “Killer Angels” (yeah, I know!). While the novel did help the students wrap their imaginations around some of the larger issues of the war, they tended to have a difficult time distinguishing fiction from fact. Some even took the novel as essentially a transcript of the battle of Gettysburg.

    I have also taught “The Jungle.” Opposite reaction there. The students judged “all of that could not have happened to one person” and therefore discounted all of the ideas that Lewis attempted to convey.

    I think that you would have to teach “Mercy” with a lot of accomanying non-fiction and explicitly guide the students toward an understanding of the narrative as an interpretation rather than fact. Perhaps you could bring in documented examples that mirror pieces of the story.

    Really, why can’t historical novelists footnote their work!


  8. Thanks, Clio B. Yes, my students also use the term “novel” to refer to anything other than textbooks. I like your ideas for using it in the classroom. Maybe one of the problems I’m having with the book is that I don’t have any major issues with her portrayal of colonial life–and I like to assign books that make provocative arguments or force the reader to consider controversial questions. I know that for most readers, this colonial America will look unpleasantly Hobbesian, so it might seem like a controversial book to them. But I don’t think this book will shock or upset the vast, vast majority of historians.

    Maybe it would be a good book for exploring the reasons for “the unity (or lack thereof) among women and other disempowered people,” with an emphasis on “the lack thereof!”


  9. I usually use one novel a semester, especially in my intro classes (although this semester I’m substituting with a memoir). I like to bring in a novel because I teach African history and students complain about the “lack of emotion” in the scholarly articles we read (they are used to American historical writing based on diaries and other sources that are much rarer in my field). I have them use the novel in comparison with scholarly articles on the same topic/timeframe. In comparing the two they have to consider what issues/themes arise in one and not the other and consider what that means. For example in reading a novel about a Nigerian woman in the 1980s who becomes “an activist”, doesn’t want to marry and ends up having only one child – they have to explore how scholars studying Nigerian women in the 1980s write about their experiences. Would this be a likely outcome for a woman in Nigeria? Or a woman of the particular class and/or ethnicity? etc, etc. This has several values as I see it, 1) When students see commonalities between the sources they stop complaining about how negative “historians” are (I really get this comment a lot – we’re all so negative). 2) It makes students consider fictional narratives and how they are pieced together from both historical works but also the present imagination. 3) It gets them to consider the value of primary evidence – if several historians say one thing and one novelist says another – how do we evaluate the relative value of their narratives.

    I’m sure there is more that I do with them, I’m tired out from a house full of kids. Holidays with no public school are not holidays! 🙂


  10. I really didn’t mean to implicate the English professoriate. I think it’s more a problem at the secondary levels. I find it difficult to mention *any* books, plays, poems, essays, that I read in high school that any of my students have ever even heard of.

    On Milton, who knew? There are (at least) two of them in NY. One in Saratoga County, not really hard by the Hudson. A second on the main stem of the Hudson, but on the west bank, near Kingston (which would have been Esopus in the novel’s timeline I think). Still sounds like kind of a late Yankee invasion thing. Ironically, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to that part of the Hudson lately for a project of my own, but mostly the east bank, and had never even noticed any Milton.

    Yeah, Historiann, I should just put this novel on my comps. list and do a little cultural-g.p.s. work on it. Will report if this happens, but it may take a while.


  11. Great review, Historiann. I enjoyed the book very much too. I’ve used novels before in my classes (e.g. Charlotte Temple, Little Women), but I’m not sure if I would use this one. Although it’s more accessible than some of Morrison’s other novels (I read Paradise twice and still didn’t understand everything that was happening) it still is difficult to follow at times.


  12. Thanks, KC–yes, it’s kind of a compendium of everything in colonial America, squeezed into 167 pages. Slavery and servitude! Rape! Witchcraft accusations! Religious dissenters! Anti-Catholicism! The pace gets a little exhausting at times.

    I like Liz2’s suggestions, and I understand her interest in teaching with novels. But–and perhaps I’m being too optimistic here–there are now enough books and articles (for now) that deal with African American and Indian women’s history that I can fill out a syllabus with history books and articles that address the experiences of all women. Pre-1800 African American women’s history has the thinnest historiography, but even that field gradually gets better every year.

    I certainly admire the imaginative efforts that Morrison went to in order to successfully create characters very much like the hundreds of thousands of people whose actual lives and experiences history did not record or preserve, but on the other hand, I don’t want to suggest to my students that the only way to do this is through fictional re-creations. I think students should see writing this kind of history as difficult and creative but possible. I guess I wonder in some ways if assigning this book would suggest to students that historians should give up on history from the bottom up.

    (And, Indyanna–don’t worry about Roxie’s teasing! You are in fact ideally poised to re-create Vaark’s journey to and fro the Chesapeake. Maybe you can get John McPhee to ride along with you this time?)


  13. I’ not sure how I arrived here…
    Wow what an intelligent review, captivating.
    I must read the book though I fear my emotions will have the best of me.
    I am no intellect, but I love reading quality books.
    I am so tired of feeling a hint of mutual interest with a stranger who espouses also be a “reader” only to find out they like junk food books such as vampire series and Harlequin romance stuff. How the heck do I then try to distinguish myself from them… and why do I feel this crazy need to explain I’m not that kind of reader. Ugh.

    I enjoy historically framed stories and lot and lots of non-fic.


  14. thank you for this review.. i was enlightened to the real meaning of the book.. i’m not american so i’m quite uninformed with this part of you’re history…thanks again!


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