Set in 17th century America, Toni Morrison's new novel A Mercy is the story of a slave girl whose mother gives her away to a stranger in a desperate attempt to secure her a better future. Maureen Corrigan hails the book as a prequel (of sorts) to Morrison's earlier novel Beloved.
This special presentation of A Mercy will run in four installments from Oct. 27 thru Oct. 30. "Book Tour" is a weekly Web feature and podcast that presents leading authors as they read from and discuss their work.
In this special edition of Book Tour, NPR is honored to be the first to present Pulitzer Prize-winner and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison reading from her new novel, A Mercy. A stunning return to form for Morrison, A Mercy deserves to be counted alongside some of her most acclaimed novels, such as Sula and Beloved.
The stories in A Mercy are as layered and contested as the barely mapped topology traversed by its characters. Set in the 1680s, when this country's reliance on slavery as an economic engine was just beginning, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother's desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master's debt.
Four women are central to this narrative: a traumatized Native-American servant known as Lina; Florens, the coltish enslaved girl at the story's center; an enigmatic wild child named Sorrow; and Rebekka, their European mistress — kind, politically contrarian and reeling from the loss of one infant after another in her isolated homestead.
The book shifts dramatically in tone as it recounts the stories of these women and of the men who both stabilize and disrupt their worlds — mostly through love. Those men include Jacob Vaark, the farmer and reluctant slaveholder, and a formidable free black man known simply as "the blacksmith." Their ability to move through the world intoxicates these women, whose own travels — mostly under duress — have been vile and dangerous.
Readers familiar with Morrison's work will recognize its quietly chilling evocations of the supernatural and depictions of powerful relationships among women. A bride and her new husband's female servant eye each other with suspicion that mellows into genuine mutual affection. A motherless child clings painfully to a childless mother. Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, beginning and ending with the devil's bargain referred to in the title and explained in the novel's devastating conclusion.
When the time came to bestow a title on her newest novel, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison struggled to find just the right word, something that would perfectly describe the book's denouement.
She fiddled around with the word "mercy," but that didn't feel quite right; the book isn't about large-scale compassion or pity or grace, says Morrison.
Then, with the help of her editor, the author put an article in front: A Mercy. With one small word, the title no longer suggested "the large world of people doing nice things or ... religious versions of God's mercy, but a human gesture — just mercy — and that worked for me."
A Mercy is a lyrical novel set in 17th century America. One of the central characters is a black slave girl whose mother gives her up to a stranger in the hope that she will have a better life. But the book also features white and Native American characters who are working in servitude.
Morrison says she wrote the novel in an effort to "remove race from slavery." She notes that in researching the book, she read White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, and was surprised to learn that many white Americans are descended from slaves.
"Every civilization in the world relied on [slavery]," says Morrison. "The notion was that there was a difference between black slaves and white slaves, but there wasn't."
White slaves, called indentured servants, were people who traded their freedom for their passage to America.
"The suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage in seven years generally, and then they would be free," says Morrison. "But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable."
In the past, Morrison said that she didn't want to write about slavery — that it was too big of a topic. "To enter into that arena just seemed to me like entering into the Atlantic Ocean on a tiny little raft," she says.
But then she wrote Beloved (which later won the Pulitzer Prize), and she realized that the key to writing about slavery was to focus on single characters rather than 300 years of history.
"I realized that I could do it if I had a single narrative about people," says Morrison. "If I simply entered the minds and the bloodstream and the perception of individuals, then it was manageable."