Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Merciful Anguish

a mercy
by Toni Morrison

As with all Toni Morrison books, I need to read this one again to make sure I really "get it." She uses a lot of flashback and switching of voices and narrators, so it is easy to lose track of where we are in the story. Having said that, though, her words are musical. She amazes me with her ability to piece together a sentence that you just want to read over and over again.

I saw some parallels between a mercy and Beloved. In the latter, a mother kills her daughter rather than have her live a life in slavery. In a mercy, a mother lets her daughter go to a master who seems like he will at least be kind to her and not sexually abuse her. Sadly, though, the daughter (Florens) thinks her mother gave her away because she wanted her owner to let her keep her little boy baby. The mother is a peripheral character in the story, but it hurt my heart to think of real people, hundreds of years ago, having to make choices like that. How awful would it be to give birth and know that your child could be sold away from you and you would never see them again? I cannot even begin imagine it, but Toni Morrison's books create a pathway by which we can relate to slaves as persons rather than just part of the abhorrent institution of slavery that we are well rid of. In my opinion, that human aspect is key - if we recognize "the other" as a fellow human being, we are less apt to revert to past destructive ways. I certainly hope that we are past the place where we would treat ANY human beings like objects that can be bought and sold.

Something interesting about a mercy is that it deals with suspicion and misunderstanding between several groups of people, not just blacks and whites. The dynamics between American Indians and blacks and American Indians and whites are also woven into the story in a way that helps us see that there is always mistrust but, paradoxically, there is hope for relationship between the most unlikely of people.

That is what really moved me about a mercy - the improbable, almost familial relationship between five persons (plus at least three ancillary characters) of different races but all of whom have been rejected in some way by the narrow minded, short sighted, and intolerant. There are "the master" Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka, neither of whom envision themselves as slave owners, but who through a series of circumstances (in which they are complicit) find themselves with three. Then there are three women (Lina, Florens, and Sorrow) who wind up with the master and his wife because they have nowhere else to go (I am greatly simplifying the series of events, but you get the idea). These women may not have been purchased on the auction block, but they are essentially slaves because they work for no pay and have no rights and no claim to the land that they work.

This small group of people forms an unlikely sort of family, but everything unravels when Jacob dies of smallpox. When Rebekka falls ill, the three anchorless women realize just how precarious their position is. They have been living under an illusion, feeling as if they have a home. If their mistress dies, they have no way to make a living for themselves, let alone a life. The limited freedom they have had with the Vaarks would likely be snatched away in a heartbeat.

The book's title refers to the split second Sophie's Choice type of decision that Florens's mother makes early in the story. I also think, though, that on a larger scale it refers to lengths to which so many mothers would go to protect their children. I hope that I would do whatever was necessary to make life safer and better for my kids, but cannot imagine a world where mothers have to make choices like that. It gives me great sorrow to know deep in my heart that there are still so many mothers (and fathers too), living on this earth today, who still live in that world.

Reverent Reader


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