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BOOK REVIEW | fall 2008

If I Die in JuarezThe Haunted and The Holy
Marilyn Sanders Mobley

A Mercy
By Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf

Readers familiar with the fiction of Toni Morrison will not be surprised that her latest novel returns to the subject of slavery, one she has already mined with exquisite power. Though the psychological implications of enslavement are as much on her mind as they were in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, in A Mercy she probes the machine of slavery itself— the routine acts of closing deals and settling debts by buying or selling human beings, in this instance by an Anglo-Dutch trader named Jacob Vaark, who had promised himself he would never trade in human flesh.

A Mercy seems to confirm the author’s belief that the past is actually more infinite than the future. Set in the 1680s, the novel opens in medias res with the words, “Don’t be afraid,” but given the dreamlike sequences in which characters move between life and death and from sea to land—like the enslaved on ships between continents— the reader is hard-pressed to find footing in time and space. What we do know is that the vagaries of a slave economy force a mother to make a difficult choice for her daughter, Florens, and that Jacob Vaark’s death leaves his plantation in disarray. The disarray is not so much because his widow, Mistress Rebekka, is stricken with smallpox and her servants are unable to cope, but because a femaleheaded household is perceived as both dangerous and vulnerable to male power. Indeed, the plague of smallpox is mere backdrop to the issues Morrison explores in this novel and the characters she introduces: Florens, whose literacy makes her a valuable commodity; Sorrow, whose time at sea on a ghost ship and having been dragged to land by whales made her wilder than most female slaves; and Lina, who, despite efforts to Christianize her, has cobbled together a spirituality comprised of her Native American scripture to create a “way to be in the world.”

Deftly rising above cliché, Morrison narrates the ways in which race, gender and class continue to color our reading of slavery. She peers beneath the surface of the machine to reveal its murky underpinnings in religious disputes. She reminds us that although grace is unmerited favor and that a mercy is an unmitigated blessing, it is no easy feat to understand or even read about the consequences of either, whether in the context of slavery or in the context of Florens and the maternal decision intended to save her. Though deceptively short, Morrison’s ninth novel is no easy read, and that’s a familiar but important truism about her fiction. To follow her text requires concentration, but it’s well worth the effort to understand how women and men who were not supposed to survive the trauma of their lives did and lived to tell it.

MARILYN SANDERS MOBLEY is provost at Bennett College for Women, a Toni Morrison scholar and an advisory board member of the Toni Morrison Society.

 

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