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A Mercy

Cover of A Mercy

A Mercy

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A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize—winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.
In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.
There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.
Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.


From the Compact Disc edition.
A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize—winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.
In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.
There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.
Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.


From the Compact Disc edition.
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  • From the book

    Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know. One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mãe standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up to the door saddle to die. Let me start with what I know for certain.

    The beginning begins with the shoes. When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes, even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettify ways. Only bad women wear high heels. I am dangerous, she says, and wild but she relents and lets me wear the throwaway shoes from Senhora's house, pointy-toe, one raised heel broke, the other worn and a buckle on top. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires. Lina is correct. Florens, she says, it's 1690. Who else these days has the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady? So when I set out to find you, she and Mistress give me Sir's boots that fit a man not a girl. They stuff them with hay and oily corn husks and tell me to hide the letter inside my stocking--no matter the itch of the sealing wax. I am lettered but I do not read what Mistress writes and Lina and Sorrow cannot. But I know what it means to say to any who stop me.

    My head is light with the confusion of two things, hunger for you and scare if I am lost. Nothing frights me more than this errand and nothing is more temptation. From the day you disappear I dream and plot. To learn where you are and how to be there. I want to run across the trail through the beech and white pine but I am asking myself which way? Who will tell me? Who lives in the wilderness between this farm and you and will they help me or harm me? What about the boneless bears in the valley? Remember? How when they move their pelts sway as though there is nothing underneath? Their smell belying their beauty, their eyes knowing us from when we are beasts also. You telling me that is why it is fatal to look them in the eye. They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger. Giant birds also are nesting out there bigger than cows, Lina says, and not all natives are like her, she says, so watch out. A praying savage, neighbors call her, because she is once churchgoing yet she bathes herself every day and Christians never do. Underneath she wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small. More than fear of loving bears or birds bigger than cows, I fear pathless night. How, I wonder, can I find you in the dark? Now at last there is a way. I have orders. It is arranged. I will see your mouth and trail my fingers down. You will rest your chin in my...
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine It may come as no surprise that Toni Morrison is as thoughtful, dramatic, and poetic a reader as she is a writer. A MERCY reveals itself to the listener in small, significant stages, using imagery far more than simple narrative, and Morrison's deft reading is an integral part of keeping the listener rapt with attention. The story provides a glimpse into seventeenth-century America, when servitude took on a variety of forms, and slavery was present on a smaller, but still merciless, scale. Morrison moves within a distinctive set of characters, her voice somehow both powerful and understated. As her prose weaves vivid and sometimes abstract snapshots of the characters' lives, Morrison's performance is the velvet cord that beautifully fastens the audiobook together. L.B.F. (c) AudioFile 2008, Portland, Maine
  • Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
    "Spellbinding . . . Dazzling . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison's body of work. The lush poetry and amorphous structure of [the novel] reflect the story's distant setting in the mist of America's creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. . . . Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Where Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss."
  • Lev Grossman, Time "
    "Luminous and complex . . . In Beloved, Morrison told the story of Sethe, a woman who murdered her own child rather than see her sold into slavery. Early on in A Mercy, we watch a mother do the opposite--she puts her daughter Florens up for sale . . . It's a less bloody moment, but in its way it's no less chilling. A Mercy is that daughter's tale. . . . Morrison is mooting the perversely hopeful possibility that slavery could have existed without racism or at least without racism as we know it. She lavishes some of her best writing in years on [A Mercy's] pre-Revolutionary world . . . A Mercy shows us America in the moment before race madness ruined it--it is a wounded land, but the wound has not yet turned septic. . . . In A Mercy, Morrison is urging her younger self, the tortured soul who fashioned the infernal vision that is Beloved, to look even further--beyond the veil of pain and anger, however righteous, to hope. There was a time before the present misery, Morrison seems to be telling herself. And therefore, maybe, there will be a time after it."
  • Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London) "Magnificent . . . As with all Morrison's finest work, A Mercy compellingly combines immediacy and obliquity. Its evocation of pioneer existence in America surrounds you with sensuous intensity. . . . An attack by a bear is described with thrilling power. . . . Idioms have potent directness, too. . . . Rich knowledgeability about 17th-century America is put to telling effect. Voices speak to you as if you were there. . . . The book keeps you vividly aware of the vital human individuality that racism's crude categorizations are brutally trying to iron out. . . . A stark story of the evils of possessiveness and the perils of dispossession emerges slantwise. Hints, suspicions, secrets, ambivalences, scarcely acknowledged motives and barely noticeable nuances serve as signposts to enormities and desperations: around slavery's large-scale uprootings, Morrison spotlights individual instances of loss (orphans and outcasts are, as often in her fiction, much in evidence; compensatory alliances they form are warmly portrayed). A Mercy is so enthralling that you'll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity."
  • Renée Graham, Boston Sunday Globe "In [A Mercy,] a mother chooses to give her daughter to a stranger, the man who will 'own' her, in hopes that she'll find a better life. It is this act from which the book derives its title, but it is, of course, an ambivalent gesture whose tragic resonance will be slowly unveiled. . . . Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called 'the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.' Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play. . . . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope."
  • Deirdre Donahue, USA Today "[A Mercy] examines slavery through the prism of power, not race. Morrison achieves this by setting A Mercy in 1680s America, when slavery was a color-blind, equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become. . . . Morrison doesn't write traditional novels so much as create a hypnotic state of poetic intoxication. You don't read A Mercy, you fall into a miasma of language and symbolism. [It] offers an original vision of America in its primeval state, where freedom was a rare commodity."
  • Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer "[Toni Morrison] bound[s] into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a doe. A Mercy . . . is that beguiling and beautiful, that deftly condensed, that sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity. . . . Finely hammered phrases repeatedly come off the anvil, forming a story as powerful as the many she has shaped before. Elements of this writer's art from way back remain part of her achievement here. Like a mighty telescope perched on a contemporary plateau, Morrison draws in signals, moods, torments, exhilarations from African American life and history . . . Morrison mixes the verbal music of an era with idiosyncratic wisdom, delivered indirectly rather than ex cathedra, recalling omniscient Russian masters without imitating them. . . . Along the way come moments whose artistry freezes one's page-turning. Morrison's tactile reports rivet . . . What's the opposite of 'lazy' in a fiction writer's style and research? Industrious? Indefatigable? Morrison wears her knowledge lightly, yet every page exhibits her control of [the 17th century's] objects and artifacts, its worries and dangers. She surrounds A Mercy's more fanciful arabesques with a broad border of realism. . . . A book as masterfully wrought as A Mercy behooves its author to swagger. Go to it, Ms. Morrison."
  • Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald "A grand tragedy writ in miniature . . . Women, men, Africans, Native Americans, whites, masters, slaves--all are cast into the hard world that is the New World in Toni Morrison's lustrous new novel. In the same way, the Nobel Prize winner casts us into her hypnotic, many-voiced narrative set in the 17th century in a nation yet unformed. . . . We're beguiled from the opening sentence: 'Don't be afraid.' The speaker is Florens, black, barely out of childhood, a slave but literate, whose eager-to-please ways and lyrical language endear her to us and to the Virginia household of Jacob Vaark. . . . The subject of [A Mercy] is slavery, and [Morrison] brings to it, along with some of her most haunting language, elements of history and mythos. . . . A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Beloved as 'awful human power.' . . . This novel's release coincides with the presidential election of Barack Obama, a shining moment in our country's history of which Morrison's characters can barely dream."
  • Judith Freeman, Los Angeles Times Book Review "Themes of slavery and grief, of women's struggles to escape the bitterness of the captive world, are at the center of Morrison's work. They also lie at the heart of her new novel, A Mercy, which looks to history [as in Beloved]--in this case, the 1680s and 1690s--to explore the agonies of slavery among the settlers of the New World. Such a description makes Morrison's novel sound far too pat, however; it slights the poetry and breadth of her work. Yes, A Mercy is about slavery, but in the most universal sense, meaning the limits we place on ourselves as well as the confinements we suffer at the hands of others. . . . [It is] a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called [Morrison's] 'noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.' The story assumes even greater metaphorical power at this particular moment, with the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president."
  • David Gates, The New York Times Book Review (cover) "[Morrison is] a conscious inheritor of America's pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it....
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