March 26, 2009

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

This book is a new(ish) release by the Nobel prize winning writer of Beloved and The Bluest Eye. I had a hold on it at the library for quite awhile, and was really excited when I got the notice that it was my turn.

One reason Toni Morrison is such a great writer is that she defies stereotypes. People that have not actually read her books will look at them and think, "oh sure, another African American writing about the African American experience. Blah blah blah." But that's not it at all. Morrison writes about the American experience, and her main characters are usually African American. While they are celebrated by the African American community, they are equally of interest and importance to all Americans. In fact when Morrison tackles an issue such as racism, she does it in such a way as to show how it effects all races, and is often propagated by victims themselves. When reading any of her books it is often difficult even to know the races of the various characters because she only bring up race if she absolutely has to. She writes almost entirely colorblind.

If there's one thing that Morrison is guilty of as a writer, it's trying too hard. Sometimes her language is just too grandiose, and other devices she uses are so frivolous and overdone that it's embarrassing to the reader. I tend to admire writers who are able to express the most with the least amount of effort, so these habits of hers grate on me. She is an amazing storyteller though.

A Mercy is a story of slavery in colonial America. "Aha, slavery!" You may be saying to yourself. But this is not a story of slavery as you may have heard before. Toni Morrison brings to light the fact that Africans were not the only slaves, though they do tend to get the most publicity. Many of the first Americans were indentured servants from all over Europe, who sold their liberty in exchange for passage. Her characters are slaves that include a Native American woman whose village had been decimated by smallpox, a white woman who was the only survivor of a shipwreck of which her father was captain, and an African girl who'd been accepted as payment of a debt. There are also two male indentured servants, both white, that help on the farm, and a Black blacksmith who had never been a slave.

The African girl, Florens, falls in love with the free blacksmith and is sent on an errand to collect him and bring him back to the farm to heal her sick mistress (he has mysterious curative powers). Along the way she encounters a group of escaped slaves, a Native hunting party, and a puritan village struggling with witchcraft trials. It's a very interesting picture of early America, and a study of what freedom really means: is it a piece of paper, or a state of mind?

This was a good book, but it could have been much better. It reads like a short story that Morrison merely stretched out into an acceptable novel length. There is material there for a very good novel, but she just didn't take it any further. She also made it painfully obvious that she hadn't done much research, by glossing over or not mentioning at all certain holes in the historical picture she paints. For example she doesn't name any Native tribes or describe cultural phenomena with any amount of specificity. One might argue that she does this intentionally to make it a story for any tribe, and culture, but that doesn't wash considering that she is writing about a very specific place and time. Methinks Ms. Morrison has grown too big for her britches and just didn't want to bother with research.

In this book she continued with the grandiose language she is known for, and introduced another of her peculiar literary devices. The narrator has a very odd way of speaking, with no sense of past or present, often mixing up pronouns and such. It's very awkward, but you do get used to it. I wouldn't mind so much if it seemed authentic, but it doesn't seem accurate for the speech of an African slave in the 1600's. Just more of trying too hard I'm afraid.

I really admire Toni Morrison and I shudder with fear that she'd ever read this synopsis. But if I'm going to be honest, that's how I feel.


  1. Hee, it never occurred to me that an author would read one of my reviews, until the day an author left a comment on my blog! Luckily, I had said I loved her book :)

    I, too, normally really enjoy Toni Morrison, but haven't read this book yet. I think I may just skip it! Thanks!

  2. If you're already a fan you'll probably like it, but people that are unfamiliar might have issues... if they even care about this stuff. I'm just really nit-picky. :)

  3. Since I have never read any of her books, I'll probably go with her early work. I've been interested for a while, but never picked up one of them up for some reason.

  4. Funny someone submitted this for my contest and I was just going to order it. Maybe I'll think twice.

  5. (And the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy)

    Florens arc of self-discovery discuss key passages.


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