Over the holiday weekend, I finally had an opportunity to sit down and read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. As a colonial American women’s historian, it would have been a must-read for me anyway, but Morrison’s book surpassed my already high expectations. I don’t know how useful my review of the book will be to non-historians, but in keeping with the spirit of the day, I’ll offer a review of the book along with some thoughts about using novels in history classes after the jump. Spoiler alert: continue reading only if you don’t mind learning a few key plot details!
A Mercy is vintage Morrison. She creates a world in which damaged women in the 1680s and 1690s both succor each other as well as perpetuate their legacies of violence and abuse. As the enslaved mother on a Maryland plantation who offers her young daughter to be sold while clinging to her infant son explains, “there was no protection and nothing in the catechism to tell them no,” 162-63. Fearful that her master already had designs on her pre-pubescent daughter, the mother hoped that selling Florens to Jacob Vaark would be “a mercy,” because “I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight,” 168. Although this makes perfect logical sense in colonial America, where “[t]here is no protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal,” 163, Florens experiences this as her mother’s rejection in favor of a boy child, and her feelings of rejection will exact a price later on in Florens’ life. Vaark takes Florens back to a farm (probably in New York*) where she joins a whole cast of orphans of the colonial world: Lina, an enslaved Native American who becomes a mother to Florens; Sorrow, a traumatized and probably mentally ill indentured servant; Rebekka Vaark, sent to America as a bride for hire and distraught by the deaths of all four of her children; and Vaark himself, who grew up as a workhouse orphan. The visit to the farm by a free African American blacksmith serves as a catalyst that changes this improvised “family” forever. The novella is told in alternating chapters that focus on each of their lives in turn, interspersed by chapters written in the first person by Florens and her mother.
Morrison’s novella (at 167 pages) offers a portrait of colonial America that captures the zeitgeist of the current historiography. Her colonial America is studiously multiethnic and multiconfessional, with a Portuguese Catholic plantation owner, African-born slaves, a Dutch farmer, his English wife, and their Indian, African American, and Euro-American bound workforce. But this is not a seventeenth-century version of “Free to Be…You and Me.” Don’t look to Morrison for portrayals of close-knit, functional communities united in barn-raisings, sharing harvest feasts, or joining together in militias to fight a common foe–there are no “little commonwealths” in this story. Groups of people united by religion or a cause are menacing and promise only further injury and alienation. They hurt others either by excluding them, as with the Anabaptist congregation that lives near Vaark’s farm, or (in one very strange scene) by subjecting Florens an impromptu humiliating witchcraft investigation. The natural world also looms large in Morrison’s tale, increasing the sense of alienation and of the terrifying randomness of fate. The New World is lush and hyperfertile, nourishing magnificent (and terrifying) old-growth forests and productive farms, but it also offers up horrors like angry bears and smallpox. This is an environment so threatening that every child born in the course of the story dies, save one. While there are individual acts of kindness, or mercies, performed by characters in the book, all of the characters in this story remain quite alone as individuals damaged by disease, warfare, violence, and brutal exploitation.
Morrison’s book is fascinating in its nuanced portraits of the women characters who have different experiences because of race and class, but they are ultimately united by their vulnerability as women in a man’s world. Much like the natural environment, free men are portrayed as powerful and unpredictable forces in women’s lives, with an emphasis on their sexual subjection to boys and men. None of the women escape: Florens’ mother recounts in detail her rapes in slavery, Lina too was abused, Sorrow was raped by the sons of the first family she worked for after she was rescued from a shipwreck, and even consensual sex is dangerous, when we see how Florens’ consuming passion for the free blacksmith leads to violence. Rebekka was fortunate to have married Jacob, but as a young bride for hire sold by her father, her body and sexuality were not her own, and she could have been sold to a brute as well as a kind man. Morrison notes that it’s not just gender, but freedom and power (or the lack thereof) that makes people sexually vulnerable: In addition to the bound women laborers, there are also two Euro-American hired hands on Vaark’s farm, one of whom was raped as a boy by an Anglican priest.
As opposed to the interview she gave to NPR a few months ago, in which she suggested that indentured servitude was equivalent to African chattel slavery, Morrison’s appreciation for the ways that class, race, and gender intersect is nuanced and accurate. Although the women on Vaark’s farm are united by their subjection by men, they are not liberated when Vaark dies but rather cast into an even more vulnerable state by Rebekka Vaark’s economic vulnerability. She retreats into a cold Anabaptist piety alone, while making plans to sell the other women. As one of the indentured men notes, “[p]erhaps their wages were not as much as the blacksmith’s, but for [the indentured men] it was enough to imagine a future,” 156. The bound women of Vaark’s farm, whose work earned them nothing, had no such advantages with which to plan a future.
In his review of A Mercy, Ortho at Baudrillard’s Bastard suggested that the book “would work wonderfully in a class on Colonial America,” but he didn’t elaborate as to teaching strategies. I’d like to hear from other historians about how you use novels in history classes. If any of you have read A Mercy, do you have ideas for incorporating it into your teaching? I like the book very much, but because it’s so true to the way I think about colonial America, I’m not sure how I would use it in a class. (As a feminist women’s historian, I don’t assign very many books that present a consensus view of colonial America, so it’s not like I could set it up against a book that portrays colonial society as a place that is free of conflict and functional for most people.) I haven’t done it since my first year of teaching, but Morrison’s fine effort makes me wonder if I should try it.
*I say probably in New York colony, because although Morrison never says, she suggests that the Vaark farm is at some distance from Virginia and Maryland. (She writes of Vaark’s journey to the Chesapeake region as one in which “[i]n his own geography, he was moving from Algonquin to Sesquehanna via Chesapeake on through Lenape,” and suggests that “he paid scant attention to old or new names of towns or forts: Fort Orange; Cape Henry; Nieuw Amsterdam; Witlwyck,” 13.) Furthermore, Vaark is clearly a Dutch name, and at one point Rebekka writes a note identifying her address as “Milton,” which is a town in New York on the Hudson River.