In A Mercy, Toni Morrison tells a story about early America when slaves weren't yet the only source of free labor. In this setting, there is a wildness about life, and man attempts to tame this wildness with civilization and religion. Morrison depicts this world with realism and strong attention to detail. That Morrison chose to set her story in 1690 is an interesting decision because at that time slavery was only beginning to be defined by race. Here a free black man could have higher status than an indentured white man, though lowest of all were the women, particularly non-white women. According to the book jacket, this story is about how one act of mercy has unintended consequences, but I believe that's a misstatement of Morrison's point. I believe the point is that people of an inferior station in life are doomed by society to live a troubled life no matter what chance an act of mercy might grant them for a better one.
Central to the characters and their connections with one another is Jacob Vaark, a white farmer in Maryland who seeks help and greater wealth. In the process he gathers the women and labor who compose this story. He marries Rebekka, a young white woman whose father would marry her off to the first man to offer. Jacob and Rebekka are grateful for one another, as Jacob is kind and Rebekka is obedient yet independent. They build themselves a small home in a remote area, but life is difficult and Rebekka loses every child she births. Jacob eventually brings home help in the form of Lina, a Native-American woman who has witnessed her tribe decimated by smallpox. She is distrustful of others, but gradually befriends Rebekka. There is also Sorrow, a scatter-brained woman who seems simple, though her troubles are far more complex than we realize once we get to know them. Finally, there is the main character, Florens, a young girl whose mother gives her to Jacob as a form of mercy, to keep the girl from the lustful cravings of her master. Florens is just a child and she is quickly the object of affection from both Lina and Rebekka.
There are other men as well who are key to the story. Willard and Scully are indentured servants who occasionally help the Vaarks out. Scully, the youngest of the two, is hopeful his servitude will be as brief as possible, and he does his best to avoid the mistakes of his friend, Willard, whose fugitive and thieving ways have been cause to increase the length of his servitude. These two are somewhat jealous by the free black man, a blacksmith hired by Jacob to build a gate for the new house he wants, but they are all good friends anyway because of the smith's charming ways. Lina is the most troubled by this blacksmith's appearance once she realizes Florens has grown smitten with him. For Lina, men are always trouble. The blacksmith is a curious character in many ways, and the fact he is a free black man is a shock to the servants. They find it strange the way he and Jacob talk with one another as though equals. I also find it curious that the blacksmith is among the only characters who doesn't have a name. It makes him enigmatic, but it also strips away the power his freedom grants him.
The plot is simple, but the humanity is much more complex. Conflict revolves around a deadly disease, smallpox, that knows no bounds between the highly and the lowly among people. The conflict is also internal, within each character, and as the story unfolds the reader gets to know each character, their desires and troubles, in a lot of detail, though in the process I think Morrison's storytelling suffers somewhat. She's certainly a gifted writer, as she's shown in her other works like Beloved and The Bluest Eye, but here her writing sometimes comes off as stilted at times. Too much is learned through expository background information, which slows the story down. Every time Morrison introduces a new perspective, she also provides their life story, and that's quite a bit of characters. I've also read people criticize her character development, though I'm not sure I agree. Morrison's goal, anyway, is not the type of character development people may be used to in YA fiction, but to show the carnal human desires and fears that shape their decisions.
I believe at the heart of these desires is one for security. Rebekka realizes as a woman in her standing she has a choice between marriage, servitude, and prostitution, and neither option is terribly appealing. She chooses marriage because at least there you have the chance at a good husband and some semblance of social standing. The other servant women, Lina, Sorrow, and Florens, also feel the comfort Jacob's security brings. Jacob is a rare man who does not mistreat the women or servants in his life. There is no threat of abuse, physically or emotionally. With Jacob, on his property, under his wealth, the women feel safe. However, smallpox tears this security apart. Even for Rebekka, society demands that her widowhood doesn't last forever, and the servants all realize that marriage means a new man and another roll of the dice.
Love is also important, though there is a safe love and a dangerous love. The love story is between Florens and the blacksmith, with Lina constantly warning Florens against the man. Put this story in the hands of Stephenie Meier, and we'd have another teen romance story where a boy and a girl are so madly in love they destroy themselves. Morrison, however, does not see this type of relationship as a positive. The positive role models for love are Rebekka and Jacob, who have created a powerful family environment. The love Florens has for the blacksmith is dangerous because it goes forward heedlessly in a time and environment where caution is the best chance for survival.
Something that strongly lent a strong sense of security in these harsh times was religion. Jacob and Rebecca have no interest in religion, because the community it builds is sometimes hateful and frightening, but religion affects everyone's lives nonetheless. The church had a lot of power, but it also abused that power by alienating those who chose not to believe, or didn't belong, and it defined who was or was not considered worthy under God's eyes. A strong feeling that God exists also spawned a superstitious fear of evil beings. In one scene a young girl is thought to be a demon because she has a lazy eye, and her mother cuts her legs open to bleed her because demons don't bleed. Morrison makes an interesting observation about God and the devout through her character, Sorrow. After enduring a long illness, Rebekka gets down on her knees and prays to God. She gives thanks to God rather than the servants who devoted their time and effort to keep her alive, and to Sorrow it's as though the devotion shown by her servants meant nothing to her. This serves to raise questions about how God views those who devote themselves to Him.
As a piece of historical fiction that hones its observations on a single family in 1690s Maryland, this is a very fascinating read. Morrison obviously knows her stuff, and she brings the era to life in great detail. Thematically there's a lot going for the novel, and I'm sure a second reading would help me find more that I missed during the first read. This is a book I would recommend, though it's not Morrison at her best. She's a challenging author, and her words provide challenges here, but too often the story delves into expository background her characters. Morrison is interested in the meek and the oppressed, but more than that she is interested in humanity, because in the end everyone is slave to folly and mortality, anyway.