In her acclaimed 1987 novel "Beloved," Toni Morrison wrote about the legacies of slavery like a disturbed oracle: The narrative itself seemed to shudder. Only a mythical telling, the book suggested, was adequate for a tragedy of that scope.
In the Nobel laureate's latest novel, "A Mercy," Morrison is still out to trace the roots of black experience in America. However this time, by searching the country's early Colonial days, telling overlapping stories of slave and free, European, African and Native American characters, she more subtly exposes contradictions that have been part of the American dream from the outset. If "Beloved" was written in a prophet's voice, "A Mercy" is the work of an elderly sage.
Set in the late 1600s along the Eastern Seaboard, Morrison's novel centers on the farm of an upwardly mobile immigrant, Jacob Vaark, whose ambition is more robust than simple greed: "The lies of the Company about the easy profit awaiting all comers did not surprise or discourage him. In fact it was hardship, adventure, that attracted him. His whole life had been a mix of confrontation, risk and placating. Now here he was, a ratty orphan become landowner, making a place out of no place, a temperate living from raw life."
In good American fashion, Vaark's material success is gaudy, and his quick rise marks one of the most persistent versions of the national story: Here, anything is possible. Vaark arranges for a wife through an advertisement at the printer's shop -- a Colonial match.com -- and then acquires a young slave named Florens in exchange for a debt. His growing estate is also home to Lina, an older Native American servant, an orphaned girl named Sorrow, a pair of indentured servants from England, and for a while, a free black artisan who does the iron work for Vaark's new mansion and with whom Florens falls in love.
Vaark's world may be the narrative stage throughout, but the stories drift, Faulkner-like, through the different perspectives of the characters, especially Florens. Morrison returns in the end to the transaction that gives Florens to Vaark, and in a moving climax recasts the coldness of the men's negotiation as a mother's gesture of love -- the title's displaced mercy. For Vaark initially offered to take the mother in exchange for the debt, but the mother, sensing a decency in Vaark, begs him to take her daughter instead. Readers of "Beloved" will remember that the panicked mother Sethe killed her baby with a handsaw to save her from slavery. The poignancy here is much softer, and yet it gets elevated by Morrison's terse theological critique: "It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human." Slavery, needless to say, was flourishing in an overtly Christian society, and in this staccato judgment Morrison damns religion with its own best language. The human did what apparently God would not.
For such a short novel, "A Mercy" achieves a vivid sense of time and place. Here is a world of fur and rum traders, tobacco farmers and slaves, refugees from religious conflicts in Europe, taverns where you share a bed with strangers, claustrophobic ships' passage across the Atlantic and public executions that serve as a form of civic entertainment. Here as well, torture does not get tucked away in remote detention camps but is displayed for all to see in a "pile of frisky, still living entrails held before the felon's eyes."
More important, illness and accident are everywhere. Three of the four Vaark children die as infants, the fourth at the age of 5. Lina's village is wiped out by smallpox. Jacob Vaark succumbs to disease, and his wife, Rebekka, barely survives it. Sorrow, who once almost drowned, is covered in boils. As the chapters alternate among the characters, the atmosphere they inhabit is one of tremendous fragility. All the characters are in some sense orphans.
This sense of collective vulnerability shapes the book's vision of the early country and leads Morrison to identify a paradox at the heart of the American story. Not only was freedom celebrated as a birthright even as it was denied to whole groups of people, the ideal of freedom itself was problematic, as Lina realized, in thinking about the Vaarks: "Sir and Mistress," she decides, "believed they could have honest freethinking lives, yet without heirs, all their work meant less than a swallow's nest. Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and consolations of a clan. Baptists, Presbyterians, tribe, army, family, some encircling outside thing was needed."
Some encircling outside thing: What would this be in a land where people valued, in the novel's words, "self-invention" more than tribe? What might be the unifying thing where religion, as in the novel, becomes a deeply divisive force? What encircling outside thing would serve where opportunity and social mobility, not hereditary order, were the rule? This is a conversation we're still having, with stress and gusto (see: "wealth, spreading around"). Late in "A Mercy," the two indentured servants, Scully and Willard, viewing America as a place to gain freedom by earning enough money, place the problem in a similar light: "One thing was certain," one of them muses, "courage alone would not be enough. Minus bloodlines, he saw nothing yet on the horizon to unite them." "A Mercy" is not the thunderclap "Beloved" was and it hasn't created an enduring Gatsby or a Huck or a Jim, but it is a wise, compelling novel whose hopeful title is hard-won and shadowed hard by threats that are all too familiar.