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A Mercy

A Mercy - Toni Morrison A Mercy, Morrison's ninth and latest novel, is a short work (167 pages) that reaffirms Morrison's gift for drawing a reader in and not allowing them to simply "read." While it lacks the final impact of Beloved, it is nevertheless a moving addition to her legacy. This time Morrison takes us back to America before the U.S., when slavery is beginning to take hold but the slaves may be African, Native American, or indentured white Europeans. It revolves around the family that Jacob Vaark creates. Vaark has inherited land he does not know how to farm, but he has an eye for making money. While refusing to be involved directly in the slave trading business, he does own a Native American slave, Lina, has taken on a girl rejected by others, Sorrow, and finally takes a girl as payment on a debt owned whose mother encourages the deal to improve her daughter's lot. With his wife Rebekka they form a small, unusual family. Vaark's boys all die in infancy, and his daughter is killed after being kicked by a horse.Morrison's characters are strong. This is a book without saints and sinners, instead populated by humans with a tendency toward inconsistency -- in other words, normal people. Vaark is a compassionate owner with a strong moral sense of the indecency of slavery, but he ends up making money in the rum business which he knows is built on the muscle of slaves elsewhere. Lina is for some years his coworker and equal, but she is not above drowning a new born infant to save her from a mother she considers unfit. Florens, the young girl he takes on, is content with life until love enters and defeats her.By creating such characters Morrison challenges the stereotypes of people and institutions with which we are too familiar. Lina, the Native American, knows she should understand the art of healing, but she was taken too soon from her mother. The quiet Rebekka comes from a life where family entertainment consisted of watching hangings and quarterings. These people are more complex than they appear. We learn about them slowly as Morrison forgoes the traditional narrative timeline and instead presents the tale in a Faulkneresque style of letting different characters tell the story and the use of flashbacks. Indeed, like Faulkner (I'm not sure Morrison will like being compared to a white, Southern male, but oh well) we see the story as the crumbling of paradise. It is not just a crumbling of Vaark's paradise (although the serpants engraved on the gate clearly mean something!) but of the soon-to-be-born United States. Although not a central character, the story of Sorrow (who later gives herself a new name), turns out to offer the most hope in this dismal landscape. Once her story is told we understand her why she is given such a name, but it is she who is successful in reinventing herself and forging a new future. Florens seems to have the most chance of success, but when she does truly own herself she loses her own value. Lina appears as the strongest, but she is tied to the family she cannot be part of and lacks the courage to step away.Morrison's greatest accomplishment here is perhaps creating a novel which has the potential to be only bleak, but she shows hope and goodness trying to get through. While in the end most of it fades, characters like Sorrow give the hope we need to make such stories bearable. It is not because we like make-believe stories; instead, it is because hope is part of our fabric and we are drawn to its reality in Morrison's work.