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)