Into Other Claws


A Mercy

By Toni Morrison

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, 176 pp., $23.95, hardcover


Reviewed by Elizabeth McHenry


In the opening pages of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, one of the central characters, Jacob Vaark, pauses in a journey to free a young raccoon that has become ensnared in a tree break. The raccoon limps off, Morrison writes, “perhaps to the mother forced to abandon it or more likely into other claws.” So begins a story about a world in which acts of mercy prove ambiguous, and the lines between cruelty and compassion are murky at best. This is not a world unknown to Morrison: throughout A Mercy, readers will be reminded in particular of Morrison’s earlier, most famous novel, Beloved, in which a runaway slave, caught in her determination to escape, cuts the throat of one of her baby daughters in an effort to spare her children from the horrors of slavery. Morrison’s exploration of the meaning of this indelible act forms the focal point of Beloved, allowing her to meditate on the personal costs of slavery and the looming shadow it casts over parental and romantic love in African American contexts.

A Mercy has been called a prequel to Beloved, and in some respects, it is just that. Set at the end of the seventeenth century, it explores a more distant past than any of Morrison’s previous novels. Early on, Morrison establishes the historical moment on the southern seaboard of what would become the United States: “1682 and Virginia was a mess.” Just a few years before, “[A]n army of blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes—freedmen, slaves and indentured—had waged war against local gentry.” The result of this failed “people’s war,” which included “the slaughter of opposing tribes and running the Carolinas off their land,” was a “thicket of new laws authorizing chaos in defense of order.” These policies would set the direction of the nation’s history, sanctioning the near-extermination of the native population and, by justifying the large-scale importation of Africans, laying the groundwork for the development of slavery in what would become the United States.

By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only; by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason; by compensating owners for a slave’s maiming or death, they separated and protected all whites from all others forever.

Here Morrison points to an underappreciated moment in the history of North America, when the slave trade and indeed slavery itself were in their infancies. Those who lived in the colonies participated in “pitched battles for God, king and land.” Religion and class provided the grounds for fierce divisions, and prejudice and oppression were omnipresent, setting the stage for racial hatred and providing the conditions in which slavery would thrive. A Mercy takes place before the institution of slavery is fully established, yet at the very moment that slave labor is being defined as the engine of capitalism in the New World. It records a crucial moment in American history, revealing much about what lay just below the surface of slavery as well as outside its immediate realm.

Jacob Vaark is a representative of this indefinite colonial world, and it is his second act of mercy that gives the novel its title. As the novel opens, Vaark is reeling from a series of disappointments that have partially derailed his natural optimism. His three sons died in infancy, and his five-year-old daughter was recently killed by a horse’s kick to her head; this series of deaths has “unleavened” his wife, a woman who had previously been “as reliable as sunrise and as strong as posts.” Added to Vaark’s burden is the consciousness that his farm is not as profitable as he had hoped and expected.

All this weighs on him as he travels to a Maryland tobacco plantation to collect a debt. When he arrives at the estate, it is clear there is no money with which to pay him. Instead, the owner of the plantation offers him payment in the other currency increasingly available in this “disorganized world”: slaves. At first, Jacob’s resolve is clear: “Flesh was not his commodity.” But he finally, if reluctantly, agrees to the exchange, receiving what he is due in the form of a little girl, Florens, offered by her mother in a voice “barely above a whisper” but with unmistakable urgency. Seeing Vaark eye her daughter “as a human child, not pieces of eight,” the mother, a woman who has experienced all the horrors that slavery has to offer and wishes for her daughter a better life, sinks to her knees and prays for what she initially considers a miracle, but ultimately calls “a mercy”

Like the entire landscape that Morrison depicts in this novel of boundaries drawn and redrawn, this act of mercy is both beautiful and terrible. Vaark is clearly a man of compassion and principle; but this very moment of compassion is also the moment when his resolve to steer clear of the “degraded business” of slavery weakens. Even though everything about slavery makes his “stomach seize,” his encounter with wealth and its physical trappings at the plantation where he acquires the little girl—the expansive property, the grand house, all enclosed by an ornate iron gate—makes him feel all the more profoundly the modesty of his own success as well as his own “boredom” in the “confinement and routine” of farming and small-scale commerce.

On his journey home, when he stops for the night at a tavern, Vaark is told about a more lucrative enterprise in which he might participate: the manufacture of sugar and the sale of molasses and rum to the northern colonies. The attractive offer lures him into a business that is economically profitable but morally bankrupt. He is well-aware that the production of sugar cane in the Caribbean is dependent on mass slave labor, and he maintains his refusal to traffic in slaves. But rationalizes his investment in this new market by telling himself that there is a “profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [the plantation where he acquired Florens], and a remote labor force in Barbados.” By dismissing slave labor in a distant land—out of sight, out of mind—Vaark persuades himself that he is remaining true to the standards of his humane conscience. The venture makes him considerably wealthier, but it also reveals the extent to which decisions like these, made even by the most liberal-minded early Americans, laid the groundwork for the growth and prosperity of the institution of slavery, not only in the “distant” Caribbean but also in what would become the United States.

For Florens, the aftermath of Vaark’s mercy is complex. Plucked from the cruelties of the tobacco plantation and deposited in the relative ease of Vaark’s farm, Florens arrives as a “frightened, long-necked child who did not speak for weeks.” Her hunger for approval is evident in her gratefulness “for every shred of affection, any pat on the head, any smile of approval.” Unlike the character Beloved in Morrison’s earlier masterpiece, Florens’s mother did not kill her, but she remains profoundly affected by her displacement. Denied her mother’s affection, hungry for examples of mothering that do not end in abandonment, she listens in “rigid delight” to the “stories of mothers fighting to save their children from wolves and natural disasters” that she hears from others on Vaark’s farm. Like so many of Morrison’s characters, Florens suffers from “mother hunger”; she is “reeling from that longing which . . . remained alive, traveling the bone.”

This hunger is her undoing. At age sixteen, in the novel’s present tense, she falls for a free black man hired by Vaark as a blacksmith to design a majestic gate to enclose the compound and new mansion built with the profits of his rum enterprise. Fueled by her own loneliness and the defining experience of feeling unwanted by her mother, Florens’s love is desperate and limiting, ultimately unacceptable to a man who owns himself and expects self-ownership, even from a woman who is legally defined as a slave. When the blacksmith’s work at Vaark’s farm is done, he leaves; later, when Rebekka, Vaark’s wife, falls deathly ill, Florens is sent to track him down, since he is a healer as well as a metal worker. “You alone own me,” she tells him when she catches up with him, this unwanted, unmoored young woman desperate for the connection that might negate the great loss of her mother. To this free, black man—who is as sure in his self-possession as any black man could be in this unsettled and unsettling New World, in part because he is respected for his craft and paid for his work—Florens’s desire to be possessed by another is repulsive. “Your head is empty and your body wild,” he responds. “Own yourself, woman.” He refers, of course, to an ownership that transcends the bonds of slavery, an ownership that is promised at the novel’s end, but in the most bittersweet of terms.

Florens returns to Vaark’s farm, hardened from being discarded yet again, this time not by a mother but a lover; she is “a docile creature . . . turned feral.” Precisely what this means is not readily apparent. On the one hand, Florens remains alone and “untouchable,” “an ice flow cut away from the riverbank.” On the other, she eventually writes her own story, scratching words relentlessly with a nail on the walls of Vaark’s unfinished and abandoned mansion. “Slave. Free. I last,” she says, her self her only protector from “any who look closely at me only to throw me away.”

In the colonial world of of Vaark’s farm, Florens is not alone in assuming this stance. Morrison places her in an oddly assorted household peopled by other slaves, indentured servants, and Vaark’s wife, whom her family shipped to him in exchange for payment—and Florens’s story is embedded in theirs. In this group, consisting of “orphans, each and all,” hunger for lost family or native place is everywhere apparent. Lina, a native woman, fortifies herself by “piecing together scraps of what her mother had taught her before dying in agony” when her village was wiped out by smallpox. Lena has “cobbled together neglected rites, merged European medicine with native, scripture with lore, and recalled or invented the hidden meaning of things.” Moved by nature and natural things, she has found “a way to be in the world”—but this has not relieved the “shame of having survived the destruction of her families.” In mastering the loss of all she once knew, Lina has forced herself to erase all memory of her childhood: “the company of other children, industrious mothers in beautiful jewelry, the majestic plan of life.” Instead, her survival depends on her ability to “sort and store what she dared to recall and eliminate the rest.”  

Vaark’s wife, Rebekka, was raised by “parents [who] treated each other and their children with glazed indifference and saved their fire for religious matters.” Sold to Vaark at the age of 16, Rebekka trades her father, a man clearly eager to exchange her for anyone who will “relieve him of feeding her,” for the adventures of the New World. For a time, she relishes the plenty that surrounds her: “trees taller than a cathedral, wood for warmth so plentiful it made her laugh, then weep for her brothers and the children freezing in the city she had left behind.” But the deaths of her children, one after the other, including the girl who seemed destined to live, unmoor her. She recovers from the illness that threatens to kill her, but the cost of such constant desertion, including that of her husband, is a bitterness more dangerous than anything that comes before it in the novel. Embracing the very religion she has scorned throughout her life, losing confidence in the relationships that had given her strength in the past, Rebekka turns on the very women who had constituted her family on the Vaark farm.

By the end of the novel, Rebekka has put Florens up for sale, insisted that Lina give up her native habit of sleeping in a hammock, and beaten the third woman on the Vaark farm, Sorrow. Described as “a bit mongrelized,” Sorrow is the daughter of a ship’s captain, raised “not as a daughter but as a sort of crew-man-to-be.” She is the lone survivor of a shipwreck that has left her “with placid indifference to anyone” except a companion imagined out of sheer desperation, whom she calls “Twin.” Whereas motherhood proves the undoing of so many of Morrison’s women, in this novel and others, it finally helps Sorrow to make sense of her own life and take ownership of it. Whereas she allows her first baby to be discarded at birth, she claims her second child, a daughter, recognizing that in creating her she has “done something, something important, by herself.” Motherhood allows Sorrow not only to name her child but also to rename herself. “I am your mother,” she tells the baby, “and my name is Complete.”

The female characters whose voices animate this novel are “unmastered” women. Their stories, and the predicaments in which they find themselves, speak volumes about the American past, its history of chattel slavery and racism, and the ambiguous nature of the freedom and opportunity it promised. Their fates are as complex as any of those articulated in Morrison’s previous novels, full of the overwhelming sense of promise and pain, of hope and hopelessness. A Mercy vividly illustrates what Morrison, in her book-length essay Playing in the Dark (1992) observes about the founding of America: “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 paradox, that the ideals of American liberty and equality were dependent on domination and enslavement, remains ripe for exploration. Morrison’s rendition of this story, about the intricacies of loss and loneliness in a landscape that is both hauntingly beautiful and menacing, is perhaps her most powerful yet.

Elizabeth McHenry is an associate professor and the director of graduate studies in the English Department at New York University. She is the author of Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (2002), and is currently at work on a study of African American literary culture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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