In many ways Toni Morrison’s witchcraft novel A Mercy (New York: Knopf, 2008) is a precursor to her masterpiece, Beloved. It is hailed for its insights into human relationships – particularly family, motherhood, and sisterhood – but it is also an exploration of fear and persecution. The clue to this lies in the opening sentence, “Don’t be afraid.”
Set in the 1680s,The Europeans are colonizing America. Jacob Vaark (an Anglo-Dutch trader) takes 16 year-old Florens (a black slave girl) in part-payment for a bad debt. Florens was born in America (the start of the coming race) to an African woman and Portuguese plantation owner, and is offered alongside her mother. The mother, however, persuades Vaark to leave her behind because she is still nursing a son, believing that her 8-year-old daughter will have a better life away from their cruel master. Throughout the rest of the novel Florens struggles to understand why her mother gave her away. The drama peaks when the new plantation owners contract smallpox. If they both die, the slaves will be at the mercy of any man who comes along. Florens is sent on a mission to save the plantation.
There are many clues suggesting that the settlers are trying to create a new Eden, but instead end up experiencing Paradise Lost. They live near the town of Milton. Vaark has twin serpents wrought into his copper gates. Bur the evil is already in the garden, waiting to poison the American Dream.
Two major themes are sisterhood and motherhood in a world controlled by men. Do women support or undermine each other? Is abandonment, death, or separation the only way to save an African American child from slavery? Morrison’s novel explores the essence of slavery – the way education leads to personal power, freedom, and autonomy – and how human beings crave community, creating their own “families” when blood relatives are not available. She suggests that mercy is the one crucial gift we can give to each other in times of need.
Morrison’s high literary style will not appeal to everyone. And some readers have expressed disappointment with the lack of obvious plot development. I, however, believe she weaves together a quilt of individual tales to create a beautifully lyrical introduction to the Salem Witch Trials. A Mercy highlights the irony of settlers arriving to the New World in search of religious freedom, only to destroy the indigenous population and enslave millions of Africans. Not only that, they brought their own prejudices with them, which finally resulted in the witch hunts. It can be no coincidence that Florens – seen as a witch by Northerners at the start of the persecutions – features in a novel called A Mercy. She functions as an early version of Mercy Lewis – the historical servant who played a crucial role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.