Many faces of slavery

review

'A Mercy' examines the complicated New World, where bondage knew no race or class

November 30, 2008|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to The Baltimore Sun

A Mercy

By Toni Morrison

Knopf / 176 pages / $23.95

There are good writers and then there are great, transformative, knock-your-literary-socks-off writers. Toni Morrison is the latter. The citation that accompanied Morrison's 1993 Nobel Prize for literature reads "Toni Morrison, who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

A Mercy tells of just such an aspect.

Morrison has often written of America's disturbing slavery-tainted past, as she did in her best-known book, Beloved, published in 1987.

In her first novel in five years, Morrison explores the complicated world of slaves, freemen, settlers and natives in a disturbing and enticing tale of 17th-century Virginia. The world of Mercy is a dicey, scary and changeable one. Nothing is sure. Everything is perilous. Death is always imminent and might come from the most or least expected source - smallpox, bad meat, a wound from a scythe, childbirth.

When we discuss slavery in America, it only ever has one brand: white European ownership of African slaves. Morrison explores the complex currency of the flesh trade in the New World where slavery knows neither race nor ethnicity nor even class. Domination is everything, freedom elusive for almost everyone. Debts must be paid, and the currency is often human beings - white, black, Native American.

As always, women form the core of Morrison's novel, and each is a slave, indentured or chattel. Florens, the novel's protagonist, was sold into plantation slavery, then into domestic bondage by her own mother. She is taken as payment for a debt by Jacob Vaark, a seemingly kind landowner who finds slavery distasteful, yet has a house filled with the indentured, including his own wife.

The other women are Sorrow, an almost mute girl raised predominantly at sea who washes up on shore, the victim of rape and more. Lina, a Native American woman whose tribe was killed off by smallpox, is the beautiful older servant who looks to Florens to replace her lost family. The mistress is Rebekka Vaark, mail-order bride of Jacob Vaark; she endured harrowing religious persecution in England and was virtually sold by her father into marriage with Jacob, a man she never met in a land she'd never been to.

Each woman has been abandoned, either by design or circumstance, and each tries to fill the void of her servitude with love. Yet when Jacob succumbs to disease, it becomes clear that without a master, the women do not know how to free themselves.

A Mercy is about many things: slavery, emotional bondage, fear, hubris, faith, enlightenment, love. It's about how lawless and harrowing life in the early colonies was and how the foundation for nearly every aspect of Colonial American life was enslavement. And it's about mercy - giving and withholding.

Morrison is not an easy writer, and A Mercy is not an easy read. The opening chapter is complicated beyond reason; it takes another hundred pages before the reader comprehends the meaning of those first pages.

Never one for linear narrative, in A Mercy, Morrison takes more license with narrative structure than usual, at times dispensing with it altogether. The reader must work at discerning at what point any given scene rests within the totality of the story and who is telling what part of the Rashomon tale, as Morrison employs several vantage points.

As always, the prose is exquisitely wrought, poetically economical. Each image is vivid, keen and palpable. Morrison transports us more than 300 years into America's sordid, bloody, rapacious past and brings it to brutal life. A Mercy is an extraordinary book. At 77, Morrison's edge remains sharp as a knife blade, her storytelling spellbindingly good.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the award-winning "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is at work on a collection of essays about the 2008 election.

excerpt

"Brawls, knifings and kidnaps were so common in the city of her birth that the warnings of slaughter in a new, unseen world were like threats of bad weather. The very year she stepped off the ship a mighty settlers- versus-natives war two hundred miles away was over before she heard of it. The intermittent skirmishes of men against men, arrows against powder, fire against hatchet that she heard of could not match the gore of what she had seen since childhood. The pile of frisky, still-living entrails held before the felon's eyes then thrown into a bucket and tossed into the Thames; fingers trembling for a lost torso; the hair of a woman guilty of mayhem bright with flame. Compared to that, death by shipwreck or tomahawk paled."

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