Summary and book reviews of A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy

A Novel

by Toni Morrison

A Mercy
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 176 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2009, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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About this Book

Book Summary

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 Atlantic 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.

Excerpt
A Mercy

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide

The following introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's searing new novel about the trauma of living in colonial America during the birth of the slave trade.

About This Book

Set in the 1680s, in the early stages of the slave trade, A Mercy gives voice to a remarkable group of characters: Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch farmer, trader, and lender; his wife, Rebekka, newly arrived from England; their servant woman, the Native American Lina, whose tribe has been wiped out by smallpox; Florens, the slave girl he reluctantly accepts as payment for a bad loan; and the permanently shipwrecked ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I was quite disappointed by A Mercy. There, I've said it. It feels sacrilegious to speak ill of such a worthy book and such an exalted author. But if a novel can be at once worthwhile and disappointing, this one is.

Morrison beautifully, terribly renders the world of America in the 1680s. It is a world in which it is lawful for a man to beat his wife after nine o'clock, a world in which the sight of a black girl is still rare enough to cause white children to scream and white women to cross themselves. But it is a world in which none of Morrison's characters—black, white or native; free, indentured or enslaved—have agency, and therefore it is a world without action. Horrific events and acts of small mercies occur. The characters move, but it is the zeitgeist blowing through them that animates them. A Mercy is a like a three-dimensional oil painting that was made to illustrate a point: "There is no protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below."   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews

Time Magazine

Luminous and complex... . Some of Morrison's best writing in years.

Boston Sunday Globe

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.

USA Today

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." - Deirdre Donahue,

The Miami Herald

A grand tragedy writ in miniature ... A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Beloved as 'awful human power.'

The New York Times Book Review (cover)

[A Mercy] is [Morrison's] deepest excavation into America's history, to a time when the South had just passed laws that 'separated and protected all whites from all others forever,' and the North had begun persecuting people accused of witchcraft... In Morrison's latest version of pastoral, it's only mercy or the lack of it that makes the American landscape heaven or hell, and the gates of Eden open both ways at once.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Morrison's short, magisterial new novel testifies to the art of a writer able to conjure near-unimaginable lives sunk three centuries ago in the infant American colonies...Morrison flings us into a dread past. But A Mercy pulls us, shuddering, onto the banks of meaning.

The Times (UK)

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.

The Washington Post - Ron Charles

This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss.

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable.

O, The Oprah Magazine

Memorable ... lyrical ... A miraculous tale of sorrow and beauty... American history, the natural world, and human desire collide in a series of musical voices, distinct from one another- unmistakably Morrisonian in their beauty and power- that together tell this moving and morally complicated tale.

Kirkus Reviews

Better seen as a lengthy prose poem than a novel, this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own shadowy luster to the Nobel laureate's shimmering body of work.

Booklist

Starred Review. Brilliant...Riveting, even poetic..a fitting companion to her highly regarded Beloved.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Magical, mystical, and memorable, Morrison's poignant parable of mercies hidden and revealed belongs in every library.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Morrison's unflinching narrative is all the more powerful for its relative brevity; it takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go until the wrenching final-page crescendo.

The Sunday Times (London)

Magnificent ... 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.

Reader Reviews

Renee

A Mercy
No one can cut through to the heart of America's dark past like Toni Morrison. The book's perspective floats between the characters creating a full, intricate picture of life when the lines were blurred between indentured servant and slave. People ...   Read More

Michael

Eh
I found this book to be wandering and vague. At times it could be gripping, but many of the attempts to be 'poetic' fell flat with me.

HS

wow
One of the worst books I have ever read. I do not like her style of writing. its a very "beating around the bush" style of writing. 100 pages in and I still am not interested. I would pretty much pay someone NOT to read this book.

Amy

Dull as Dirt
Maybe the most boring of all Morrison's books. I don't like the style of writing, but the plot is also very dry. Most of us don't know too much about Virginia in the late 1600's which would have helped. Not engaging at all.

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Beyond the Book

American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century
Toni Morrison locates her novel at a moment of transition in American history, the moment when, to use the historian Ira Berlin's terms, a society with slaves became a slaveholding society. British colonialists had owned African slaves ever since the founding of Jamestown, but in the beginning of the seventeenth century, slavery was just one form of labor among many and slave-owners were few.

No laws yet existed to govern this relationship, and African slavery was not yet a legally defined identity. In the mid-Atlantic region, black slaves were treated similarly to white servants and the two groups forged solidarities across racial lines. Neither group was treated well, but ...

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