Sunday, April 26, 2009

Before Slavery

Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her acclaimed novels, "Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon" have dealt with the traumatic history of the black woman in the United States. Her latest novel "A Mercy" has been called a prequel to her other novels. "A Mercy" is set in the late 1600’s in Virginia. It was a time when the South passed laws that “separated and protected all whites from all others forever”. A time before slavery took its demonic hold on the South.

The novel begins when Jacob, a farmer and trader, attempts to collect a debt. In lieu of money he takes a young girl as payment for the debt. As the mother offered the child to the tall man who laughed at the child’s antics and saw her as a human and not as a piece of property, she thought to herself, “It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy.”

"A Mercy" is told in the voice of Florens, the child Jacob took home to his farm and his wife. It is a household of women, his wife, Rebekka, a mail order bride, Lina, a native American woman who was the sole survivor of a small pox epidemic, and Sorrow, the strange daughter of a sea captain, who literally washed ashore. They exist on Jacob’s profitable farm, surrounded by a strange cast of characters; the well-meaning priests, the witch hunters, the intolerant Protestants, and the self-indulgent Catholic slave holders.

"A Mercy" is a tragedy, where all the characters are damaged. They are a troubled man, slaves, indentured servants and a mail order bride, who all learn to live together and in some instances, find love. They all experience varying degrees of freedom. Morrison’s theme in this somewhat oblique novel is that “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing, to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing, to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing”.

Toni Morrison writes fiction that is very close to poetry. The good side of this is that her writing is lyrical and beautiful. The other side of this is that the reader often does not have a clue to what is happening. Often the reader is not sure who is speaking or where the character is at the time. If the reader is persistent he or she will eventually be able to put the story and the characters together. But I question if Toni Morrison understands how difficult it can be to traverse her narrative. "A Mercy" is an interesting story but it is not as strong or as memorable as "Beloved" or her other more satisfying works.

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