(4.5 stars) Continuing themes that she has been developing since the start of her career, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison creates an intense and involving philosophical, Biblical, and feminist novel set in the Atlantic colonies between 1682 and 1690. Her impressionistic story traces slavery from its early roots, using unique voices--African, Native American, and white--while moving back and forth in time. The primary speaker is Florens, a 16-year-old African slave, who tells the reader at the outset that this is a confession, "full of curiosities," and that she has committed a bloody, once-in-a-lifetime crime. In a flashback to 1682, we learn that when Florens was only eight years old, her mother suggested to the Maryland planter who owned the family, that Florens be given to New York farmer Jacob Vaark to settle a debt. Florens never understands why she was abandoned by her mother.
Florens lives and works for the next eight years on Vaark's rural New York farm. Lina, a Native American, who works with her, tells in a parallel narrative how she became one of a handful of survivors of a plague that killed her tribe. Vaark's wife Rebekkah describes leaving England for New York to be married to a man she has never seen. The deaths of their subsequent children are devastating, and Vaark is hoping that eight-year-old Florens will help alleviate Rebekkah's loneliness. Vaark, himself an orphan and poorhouse survivor, describes his journeys from New York to Maryland and Virginia, commenting on the role of religion in the culture of the different colonies, along with their attitudes toward slavery.
All these characters are bereft of their roots, struggling to survive in an alien environment filled with danger and disease. When smallpox threatens Rebekkah's life in 1692, Florens, now sixteen, is sent to find a black freedman who has some knowledge of herbal medicines. Her journey is dangerous and ultimately proves to be the turning point in her life.
Morrison examines the roots of racism going back to slavery's earliest days, providing glimpses of the various religious practices of the time, and showing how all the women are victimized. They are "of and for men," people who "never shape the world, The world shapes us." As the women journey toward self-enlightenment, Morrison describes their progress in often Biblical cadences, and by the end of this novel, the reader understands what "a mercy" really means. An intense and thought-provoking look at various forms of slavery from their beginnings, this short novel has an epic scope, one which admirers of Morrison will celebrate for its intense thematic development, even as they may somewhat regret its sacrifice of fully developed characters. Mary WhippleSulaBeloved (Vintage Classics)JazzSong of SolomonLovePlaying in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination