Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 26 - "A Mercy," by Toni Morrison

I began this series almost exactly a year ago, and am now just over half-way through. So far, apart from brief forays to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, I have focussed on the history of the Old World cultures of Europe, Africa and Asia. The course of world history changed, however, on 12th October, 1492, when Christopher Columbus's fleet made landfall on the Bahamas.

From the outset, the relationship between European explorers & settlers and the native peoples of the New World was to be one of subjugation and oppression. Columbus himself enslaved many of the Arawak people he encountered, and seems to have encouraged his lieutenants to rape the women. Inadvertently, his crew also introduced diseases, including smallpox, to which the peoples of the Americas had no immunity, and which would prove devastating.

An enclosure of the Susqeuhannock people of Maryland, c1671. Jacob van Meurs (image is in the Public Domain).

Within a few decades, Spanish, British, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Swedish adventurers had established colonies along the eastern seaboards of North, Central and South America, each group forming an alliance with one or more of the native peoples. Tobacco, long used by the native peoples themselves, but previously unknown in Europe, became a major export commodity.

A Susqeuhannock native, as seen by a European settler, c1675. Louis Nicolas, Codex Canadiensis (image is in the Public Domain).

It is estimated that around three quarters of all Europeans who travelled to the New World in the 17th Century were indentured labourers, men and women so poor that they were willing, in effect, to become slaves for a fixed period in return for a one-way passage to a new and uncertain life.

Nor did all of these labourers come from Europe: twenty Africans arrived in the English colony of Jamestown Virginia in 1619, and they seem to have been indentured labourers, rather than "slaves" in the full sense. Slavery, as we understand it from novels such as Alex Haley's Roots, developed later, and arose from specific legislation (it was explicitly legalised in Massachusetts in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, and in Virginia in 1661).

African slaves on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, c1670 (image is in the Public Domain).

Toni Morrison's novel, A Mercy, follows the intertwined lives of Jacob Vaark, a Briton of Dutch descent, and his English wife, Rebekkah; Florens, a black slave who works on their farm in Maryland; Lina, a Native American, the survivor of a smallpox epidemic, who also works on the farm; and Sorrow, a "mongrelised" woman, the survivor of a shipwreck, and possibly the daughter of a sea captain. The chapters alternate between their viewpoints, in a style reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Florens: "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark - weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more - but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle ... If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with a little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of my apron."

Portrait of an African slave woman, by Annibale Carracci, c1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

Jacob: "The man moved through the surf, stepping carefully over pebbles and sand to shore. Fog, Atlantic and reeking of plant life, blanketed by the bay and slowed him. He could see his boots sloshing but not his satchel nor his hands. When the surf was behind him and his soles sank in mud, he turned to wave to the sloopmen, but because the mast had disappeared in the fog he could not tell whether they remained anchored or risked sailing on - hugging the shore and approximating the location of wharves and docks."

Mrs Richard Patteshall and child, by Thomas Smith, c1649. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (image is in the Public Domain). These are settlers of Jacob and Rebekkah's time and class.

Lina: "Lina was unimpressed by the festive mood, the jittery satisfaction of everyone involved, and had refused to enter or go near it. That third and presumably final house that Sir insisted on building distorted sunlight and required the death of fifty trees. And now having died in it he will haunt its rooms forever. The first house Sir built - dirt floor, green wood - was weaker than the bark-covered one she herself was born in. The second one was strong ... There was no need for a third."

Above all, what impresses me are the humane qualities of this novel. Each character has his or her own story, and each story is told in terms that would be meaningful to the character whose story is being told. There are no heroes or villains here, just real human beings, as complex as ourselves, trying to live decent lives, yet sometimes constrained by circumstances to take the most harrowing decisions ever faced by man or woman, and each one a participant in a grand narrative, the meaning of which is revealed to us, but never to any of them.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review, Mark. I'm a Toni Morrison fan, so this one is immeciately on my TBR list.