By Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf, 167 pages, $23.95
We are a nation of orphans. It’s our New World inheritance. White, black, red, we’re fatherless, motherless. The whites orphaned themselves, leaving behind the Old World, its comforts and strictures, for a trackless wilderness. The blacks were stolen from their homes, packed into slave ships and sold into orphanhood. As for the natives, the “savages,” their way of life was gutted by the European invasion—some tribes were decimated on contact, others suffered a gradual, inexorable dispossession: They were orphaned bit by bit. One way or another, our ancestors were foundlings—do we feel it still, a trace memory of thrilling, terrifying isolation? And is that primal loneliness a condition, weirdly, of our freedom?
Toni Morrison’s powerful new novel, A Mercy, takes us back to the moment of our collective unmoored infancy, to a farm scratched out of the deep forest in the American colonies at the very end of the 17th century. The farm, 120 acres belonging to Jacob Vaark, “a ratty orphan become landowner,” is lousy with abandoned or rejected children (in the whole novel, there’s scarcely a parental bond unruptured). Jacob’s wife, Rebekka, for instance, was shipped from England as a 16-year-old to wed a stranger (her mother objected to the “sale,” but only on religious grounds: Her daughter would be marrying “a heathen living among savages”).
Although none of their four children survived (three boys died in infancy, one girl at age 5), the marriage of Jacob and Rebekka has been a success: “They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency.” Or at least that’s how Rebekka sees it. In fact, she runs the farm with the help of a rainbow coalition of female slaves and servants: Lina, an enslaved native whose village was obliterated by disease when she was still a girl; Sorrow, the sole survivor of a shipwreck that drowned her father, the ship’s captain; and Florens, a slave who came to the farm age 7 or 8, accepted by Jacob as part payment on a bad debt (her mother, who begged Jacob to buy the girl, had herself been brought from Africa to Barbados, and thence to a tobacco plantation in Maryland).
An outside observer (an indentured servant, one of two men from a neighboring farm who sometimes helps the women out when Jacob is away on business) has this to say about the various Vaark women: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation.”
An investor as well as a farmer, Jacob has put money into the Caribbean rum trade (another slave-based industry). With his profits, he decides to build a grand house on the farm—but dies before it’s completed. His death imperils the entire household. As Rebbeka realizes, “Without the status or shoulder of a man, without the support of family or well-wishers, a widow was in practice illegal.” When she, too, falls ill, the threat of disaster doubles: Should she die, the three remaining “unmastered” women would be “wild game for anyone.”
A MERCY CONSISTS MOSTLY of backstory—how this ad hoc “family,” Jacob, Rebekka, Lina, Sorrow and Florens, came together, flourished for perhaps a decade, and, lacking an heir and a paterfamilias, came unstuck. As Sorrow puts it to herself, “There had always been tangled strings among them. Now they were cut.”
Florens, who has fallen in love with the itinerant blacksmith who forged the ornate wrought iron gates for Jacob’s new house (a free black man never enslaved), actually writes her story in her own voice, carving it with a nail into the walls and floors in a room of the empty new house and calling it a kind of confession; for the rest we get close third-person narration, skipping from character to character with each new chapter.
No matter whose tale she’s telling, Ms. Morrison’s prose is richly lyrical, compressed, intense. Despite all the retrospective brooding her characters engage in, there’s virtually no explaining in this novel. The reader has to piece together a coherent narrative out of tantalizing fragments, partial glimpses from limited perspectives, story lines picked up in progress and broken off incomplete.
But what happens is less important than the pulsing life Ms. Morrison has imparted to her characters and the wholly convincing world they inhabit. Rebekka and Lina, for example, though poles apart in temperament, are made of the same clay—clay dug from, you might say, the farm’s soil. Here’s the mistress, Rebekka, remembering their early days together:
“Perhaps because both were alone without family … or because both were hopelessly ignorant of how to run a farm, they became what was for each a companion. A pair, anyway, the result of the mute alliance that comes of sharing tasks.”
And here’s Lina’s version:
“They became friends. Not only because somebody had to pull the wasp sting from the other’s arm. Not only because it took two to push the cow away from the fence. Not only because one had to hold the head while the other one tied the trotters. Mostly because neither knew precisely what they were doing or how. Together, by trial and error they learned: what kept the foxes away; how and when to handle and spread manure; the difference between lethal and edible and the sweet taste of timothy grass; the features of measled swine; what turned the baby’s stool liquid and what hardened it into pain.”
I don’t want to give the impression that A Mercy reads like a farmer’s almanac, but it’s true that even the solitary sex scene alludes to animal husbandry. Sorrow, whose only sexual experience consists of “silent submission to the slow goings behind a pile of wood” (with a pair of randy boys), or a hurried coupling in a church pew (with a randy deacon), spies the blacksmith and Florens under a hickory tree, “rocking”—“and, unlike female farm animals in heat, she was not standing quietly under the weight and thrust of the male. … This here female stretched, kicked her heels and whipped her head left, right, to, fro. It was a dancing. … He hoisted her up against the hickory; she bent her head into his shoulder. A dancing. Horizontal one minute, another minute vertical.”
Between them, Florens and the blacksmith generate much of the drama in A Mercy, and much of the thematic punch, too. Abandoned and betrayed as a child, Florens is a slave enslaved by love—love for a free man who warns her, “Own yourself, woman,” a man who tells her he has seen “slaves freer than free men.” If her lover’s advice seems ill-suited to a 16-year-old female in bondage deep in the American wilderness, circa 1690, think of it as a shout across the centuries.
This is what Toni Morrison has achieved: She has made the fate of her characters seem like an echo, far off yet distinct, of our own fate.
Adam Begley edits the Observer Review of Books. He can be reached at email@example.com.