A Review of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Orphans of the Storm

In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy we see life through the eyes of people physically and emotionally abandoned, orphans with names like Lina, Florens, Jacob, Rebekkah and Sorrow.  The storm is the clashing of cultures in pre-Revolutionary War America where the laws are not yet defined, everyone and everything is for sale, and all are threatened with annihilation by God, the environment or each other.  Europeans looking for a promised land of unending wealth or escape, Natives living through an apocalypse, indentured servants and slaves from Europe and Africa bound to barbaric institutions are all brought to a slow, simmering boil in the torrid fog rolling in over Mary-Land and Virginia…colonies ironically named for women but that are unmerciful and cruel to those females who come to their shores.

How can a man scorn trading in “flesh” yet envy the riches of those who profit from slavery?  How can a woman forge on in a harsh new world when all her children have died and her husband has become delusional?  How can a young slave girl find love when she thinks her mother abandoned her and she has never known freedom?  How can a nation arise out of such chaos?  These are the types of questions Morrison asks in her new novel.  Don’t expect any easy answers.  The unsettling underbellies of religion and colonialism are laid bare here among many other things, but so also are some things divine like the glories of hard work, friendship, self-reliance and survival.

Armed with her Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes and her tenure at Princeton University, Toni Morrison is a national treasure.  You read her books not for entertainment (which isn’t to say they aren’t) but to challenge yourself.  A Mercy arrives so acutely woven that you can not only see but taste, smell and touch the frontier world on the eastern seaboard of 17th century America…but perhaps not as clearly as it seems on the surface of the words weaved.  Don’t be fooled by the novel’s brevity at 167 pages.  When you dig deeper or reread an earlier passage armed with insight from something revealed later on, it’s as if you are in a dream, a brutal and poetic dream that takes everything you thought you knew about the story and guts it like a chicken whose entrails are then used by a haggard old sage to divine the past and the future in the bloody patterns it makes.

It’s clear that Morrison has been profoundly influenced by William Faulkner.  Some would argue a heavy feminist or environmental bent with all the talk of mothering or with any of the passages detailing the Native slave Lina’s unease when her master Jacob starts chopping down all those trees to build an absurd house without first asking the trees’ permission.  But early on when she describes arriving on Virginia’s shores through the eyes of Jacob, Morrison is positively Faulknerian:  Unlike the English fogs he had known since he could walk, or those way north where he lived now, this one was sun fired, turning the world into thick, hot gold. (page 9)  Or take for instance a later passage where she describes one man’s troubling sleep in an unknown wilderness:  At night in his hammock, trapped in wide, animated darkness, he braced himself against the living and the dead. (page 149)

But Morrison is not as long-winded as our dear Southern Bard, and she shows great restraint when cutting deep to the heart of things.  Witness a heated exchange between the young slave girl Florens and her freed lover over what really makes her a slave.  The conversation is presented with no quotations, just free flowing talk where he tells her:

Your head is empty and your body is wild.
I am adoring you.
And a slave to that, too.
You alone own me.
Own yourself woman and leave us be.”
(page 141)

Later, hardened from her life experiences and still wondering after all these years why her mother allowed her to be sold and sent away with a man from New Amsterdam (New York), Floren’s first person narration, always in the present tense, declares with a cunning play on words and the future dream of a people to be free at last:  I am become wilderness but I am also Florens.  In full.  Unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  No ruth, my love.  None.  Hear me?  Slave.  Free.  I last.   The chapter closes with Florens imagining her mother’s thoughts:  You can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are as hard as cypress.  (page 161)

Then there are the opening sentences of a chapter exploring the thoughts of two indentured servants, Willard and Scully, who stay at a farm in New Amsterdam even after their master has died and unusual things start happening:  Jacob Vaark climbed out of his grave to visit his beautiful house.  “As well he should,” said Willard.  “I sure would,” answered Scully. (page 143)  Here things of a spiritual and matter-of-fact nature need no embellishment with flowery language.

A Mercy is less a piece of historical fiction than it is a psychological case study of the personality types that violently came together in the New World.  But instead of applying a cold, omniscient voice to the plight, Morrison allows us to intimately glimpse the pain and the sorrow through the impassioned, enraged and bereft voices of those she seeks to study.  Whether exploring the quest for identity in Song of Solomon,  the aftershocks of slavery in Beloved, the roots of American culture in Jazz or the pre-birth of a nation in A Mercy, when it comes to exorcising the dreams and nightmares of our shared past, nobody does it better than Morrison.  In her latest dirge, no mercy comes from the heavens above or the land below, but only from the connections made between the sad souls wishing to leave the latter for the former.  Perhaps it was in that little bit of mercy where our nation was born, which would make Morrison’s novel not an elegy but a promise.

Written by David H. Schleicher


For further exploration of life in America in the 1600’s, I recommend:

Love and Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price  (non-fiction book)

Terrence Malick’s The New World  (film)


  1. Wonderful review David. I have read Beloved and like it. I have never read any of Toni’s novels, but this review about A Mercy has definitely piqued my interest.

    Thanks, Ana. I would also highly recommend Toni Morrison’s Jazz if you want a rewarding challenge. –DHS

  2. Dave – thanks for pointing me into Toni Morrison’s direction. I haven’t read her but will definitely check out her work.

    Rebecca, Morrison is definitely a writer’s writer, too. One would be amiss to not try her at least once. –DHS

  3. Excellent review. This is one of those books I can imagine repeatedly revisiting, finding something new with each re-reading. The first encounter feels like the start of something fuller, richer, and deeper.

    Lorraine, I feel the same. I already found myself returning to certain passages that read anew now that I know how the story ends (or, well, begins). It makes me want to go back and re-read Jazz as well. –DHS

  4. DHS,

    I love Morrison. Reading one of her books is to read a true poet in action. I didn’t find A Mercy to be one of my favorite Morrison novels, but it was well worth the read.

    I really liked the depth of your review, it’s well done, and your insights have made me reconsider portions of the novel in new ways.

    Your review is also appearing on this web site: http://book-reviewsnews.blogspot.com/2009/04/review-of-toni-morrison-mercy.html

    Unfortunately, no credit is given to you as the author of this review nor did I see a link back to this site. I write book reviews for the Booklove Blog, and I had one of my reviews plagiarized by this individual, so I’ve been watching carefully to see if they continue to steal reviews.

    I contacted Google and they removed my review. I’ve posted my experience on my blog: http://frohock.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/book-review-plagiarist-arthur-alert-part-ii/

    Good luck!

    Teresa, thanks for letting me know about that link that stole my review! I have contacted Google. Often I find people reposting my reviews but they always link back or at that very least credit my name. Plagiarism is always a worry when posting so freely on the web. –DHS

  5. I’m like you and don’t mind a re-post or even partial use so long as the blogger gives credit to the original author or a link back to the original post. However, I’ve noticed some people think that because something is posted on the Internet or in a blog means that it’s free for anyone to use. I’m just glad that Google takes the violations seriously.

    Good luck to you!

    Teresa, thanks again! Google took down the offending post today. Also, I will be adding your awesome blog to my blogroll. –DHS

    • Wow, Dave, thank you for the link! I’ve posted a link to your site under my Book Reviews links.

      Just a quick head’s up that the same site ripped another one of my reviews, which I’ve reported. I pop back in on them from time to time. Google is investigating the second theft now, so I’m hoping they’ll remove that one, too.

      Thanks again!

      Teresa, cool, thanks! One would think Google would reserve the right to just shut a blog down after so many complaints. It’s so ridiculous. –DHS

  6. In this “Eden”, this new world of infinite possibility, a group of people—enslaved and free, male and female—have coalesced to carve out a life, to discover a means “to shelter in wilderness”. Their ties—improbable and tenuous—and their disparate histories are explored in the fourth chapter Discuss please.

    Let me guess…you’re cruising the blogosphere to find answers to homework questions? –DHS


    The eagle allegory is an astonishing one—rich in symbolism and thematic significance. Analyze this passage that begins with “One day, ran the story, an eagle laid her eggs in a nest…” and ends with ” ‘We have,’ says Lina.”

    Or maybe you’re a teacher testing out some new study questions? Whatever the case, I’m pleased to see Toni Morrison, and especially this work, being read in school! –DHS

  8. Is their any nature/animal imagery in A mercy.

    There was definitely generalized talk of nature (especially trees). I don’t recall anything specific regarding animals…but there may have been. I mentioned the passage where Lina talks about trees in my review…that’s the only one that really stuck out in my mind…as to the specific page, I don’t recall. It’s been awhile since I read the book. –DHS

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