A Mercy

by Michael O. Allen on November 24, 2008

Nobel laureate and Pulitzer-prize winner Toni Morrison has a new book, “A Mercy,” out. I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

From a review in the village voice:

Seventy-seven-year-old Morrison sets her story down in primeval America in the 1680s, before slavery is institutionalized but when the law grants “license to any white to kill any black for any reason.” Any social comfort between laborers and landowners is crushed. Morrison’s opener—the confession of a slave girl—becomes the foundation for a creation myth: the genesis of racist America, with Adam and Eve played by the Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark and his mail-order bride, Rebekka, who arrives by boat, grateful to have escaped the squalor of London. Cast out of this new American Eden as unbelievers and orphans, they build a “family” of the unwanted: Lina, a Native-American servant who “cawed with birds” and whose village was decimated by smallpox; Sorrow, a “mongrelized” girl who had “never lived on land” and washes up on shore after a shipwreck; Will and Scully, indentured gay servants; and Florens, the confessor.

In August, she told New York magazine that:

“I really wanted to get to a place before slavery was equated with race,” says Morrison. “Whether they were black or white was less important than what they owned and what their power was.” She speaks from her home on the Hudson River in Rockland County, as an “inconvenient but exciting” summer thunderstorm rages outside. At 77 and preparing for her last year of teaching at Princeton, she has a high, soft, almost timid voice—perhaps the result of having just recorded the audio version of A Mercy (“three days of complete misery”). But her stated purpose—defining an America where race isn’t everything—couldn’t be clearer: “There is no civilization that did not rest on unpaid labor—not Athens, not Russia, not England, no one,” she says. “The exoticism came with race.”

(Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

She read excerpts on NPR, which were presented in four podcasts in late October. Her reading voice is so beautiful and the poetry of her prose so transporting that I may have to buy the audio book as well (that is, if she read it). Here’s an excerpt of text that accompanied the podcasts:

A Mercy is a lyrical novel set in 17th century America. One of the central characters is a black slave girl whose mother gives her up to a stranger in the hope that she will have a better life. But the book also features white and Native American characters who are working in servitude.

Morrison says she wrote the novel in an effort to “remove race from slavery.” She notes that in researching the book, she read White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, and was surprised to learn that many white Americans are descended from slaves.

“Every civilization in the world relied on [slavery],” says Morrison. “The notion was that there was a difference between black slaves and white slaves, but there wasn’t.”

White slaves, called indentured servants, were people who traded their freedom for their passage to America.

“The suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage in seven years generally, and then they would be free,” says Morrison. “But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable.”

First, Beloved, Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, set off a minor civil war. Then, when she won the Nobel, all hell broke lose. Yet, she carries on. A singular voice that speaks truths some don’t want to hear.

The Guardian of London had a review in October:

In her essay ‘Playing in the Dark’, Toni Morrison looked back to the founding of America and observed: ‘What was distinctive in the New World was, first of all, its claim to freedom, and second, the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.’ This sentiment – that ideals of economic and political liberty were dependent on brutal enslavement – is the starting place of all her work, and this, her first novel for five years, is another distillation of it. In her essays and novels, she has pursued – and mostly won – the argument that the history and literature of America were predicated on the exclusion of the black part of its population, that the myths of nation-building contained an explicit or an unspoken ‘us’ and ‘them’. That this book will be published in the week before her nation may choose a President who for the first time could eclipse that divide, who could make ‘them’ ‘us’, lends it a fundamental resonance.

The subject of slavery is one that has vexed Ms. Morrison a long time. Michiko Kakutani, the chief literary critic at The New York Times, was the main champion of “Beloved.” In her Tuesday, Nov. 4 review of “A Mercy,” she praised the new book as a worthy addition to the earlier novel:

A horrifying act stood at the center of Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterwork, “Beloved”: a runaway slave, caught in her effort to escape, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw, determined to spare the girl the fate she herself has suffered as a slave. A similarly indelible act stands at the center of Ms. Morrison’s remarkable new novella, “A Mercy,” a small, plangent gem of a story that is, at once, a kind of prelude to “Beloved” and a variation on that earlier book’s exploration of the personal costs of slavery — a system that moves men and women and children around “like checkers” and casts a looming shadow over both parental and romantic love.

Set some 200 years before “Beloved,” “A Mercy” conjures up the beautiful, untamed, lawless world that was America in the 17th century with the same sort of lyrical, verdant prose that distinguished that earlier novel. Gone are the didactic language and schematic architecture that hobbled the author’s 1998 novel, “Paradise”; gone are the cartoonish characters that marred her 2003 novel, “Love.” Instead Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable.

This is how the review ends:

The main storyteller in this volume is Florens, who, abandoned by the blacksmith, feels herself “an ice floe cut away from the riverbank.” But her voice is just one in this choral tale — a tale that not only emerges as a heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams, but also stands, with “Beloved,” as one of Ms. Morrison’s most haunting works yet.

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