Toni Morrison


"A Mercy"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 11, 2008)

“I don’t think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think He knows about us… [He made us] but He made the tails of peacocks, too. That must have been harder.”

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison continues her powerful examination of slavery’s evil legacy, a focus of her long career, by creating an intense and involving novel set in the Atlantic colonies between 1682 and 1690, when the slave trade from the Portuguese colonies in Africa was a lucrative business for many colonists. Here Morrison examines slavery from its earliest days, concentrating on its short term and long-term effects on society as a whole and the people, especially the women, who were it greatest victims. Slaves were a valuable commodity in the southern colonies; even in New York, where most of this action takes place, slaves were owned, and property laws governing their ownership were respected.

As she does so frequently in her novels, Morrison creates her story through several different points of view while moving back and forth in time, creating unique voices and an impressionistic mood which keeps the suspense high. The primary speaker is Florens, a young black girl, aged sixteen at the outset of the novel, who tells the reader that her narrative is a confession, “full of curiosities,” and that she has committed a violent, bloody, once-in-a-lifetime crime which she will never repeat. When Florens was only eight years old, she had been given up, at the suggestion of her own mother, to New York farmer Jacob Vaark by a Maryland planter to settle a debt. Florens has never understood why her mother offered her up to Vaark, thereby forcing her to abandon her family and “home” to travel hundreds of miles to Vaark’s farm in cold, upstate New York.

There, outside of Albany, Florens lives and works for the next eight years, part of a small “family” of other enslaved or indentured farm workers and their Master and Mistress, all of whom the reader comes to know. Lina, a Native American, was one of only a handful of survivors after a plague killed her entire tribe, and, as she tells the reader in her own parallel narrative, she can no longer remember her original language, though she does remember some of her culture. She and Florens are joined in their working duties by Sorrow, a crazed and unreliable young woman who was rescued from a terrible fate by Vaark when she was a child but who is unable to contribute much to the workings of the farm.

Vaark’s wife Rebekkah, who is often alone when Vaark is traveling, also tells her own story of having left England on the six week voyage to New York to be married to a man she has never seen. The deaths of their subsequent children are devastating, and Vaark hopes that the eight-year-old Florens will help alleviate Rebekkah’s loneliness. Vaark, himself an orphan and survivor of the poorhouse, tells of 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, trying to survive in an alien environment which is filled with danger and disease. When smallpox threatens the life of Rebekkah in 1692, Florens is sent to find the black freedman who has previously built an elaborate fence around Vaark’s new house, a man who has some knowledge of herbal medicines. Florens, now sixteen, is passionately in love with this smithy and can hardly wait to find him again. Her journey is dangerous, ultimately proving to be the turning point in her life.

As Morrison examines the roots of racism going back to the earliest days of slavery in the colonies, she provides glimpses of the various religions being practiced at the time—Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and Church of England, for example— their attitudes toward life and death, and their interpretations of an individual’s obligations in relation to God and their fellow man. At the same time she also depicts the spiritual lives of her non-white characters, who follow natural laws, rather than ecclesiastical laws. The ability to “read” signs and portents, to see the future from studying unusual natural phenomena, and to communicate with the spirit world—ghosts and specters—reflect similar hopes for knowledge which traditional (white) society believes it finds in the church.

Throughout the novel, women are victimized by the social expectations of the day and, often, by the fact that they have no standing either in the law or in religion. Those who do not follow a set creed, held in common by society, such as the slaves and the practical Rebekkah, are doubly alienated, at the mercy of the legal and ecclesiastical world in which they live.

They have all learned that women are “of and for men,” that they are people who “never shape the world, The world shapes us.” As the women journey toward self-enlightenment on this remote farm in New York, 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 slavery from its beginnings, this is a novel of epic scope, filled with complex philosophical, Biblical, and feminist issues and symbols. Morrison’s themes are clear and unambiguous, and her many admirers will celebrate this novel for its message, even as they may regret its sacrifice of full character development to that message.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 169 reviews


(back to top)


"Beloved"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 7, 2000)

"124 was spiteful. Full of of a baby's venom. The woman in the house knew it and so did the children."

Set in 1873, Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver, are the only two left living at 124 Bluestone Road on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. Baby Suggs, the grandmother, died nearly nine years earlier and Sethe's two sons secretly ran off, each at the age of thirteen, not able to tolerate another display of rage by the mischievous baby. Sethe and Denver stayed subjecting themselves to the whims of the ghost baby. "For a baby she throws a powerful spell," says Denver. "No more powerful than the way I loved her," Sethe answers. Sethe hopes she can explain this to the baby and Denver looks to the ghost for company, given she has no playmates in this lonely house.

It was eighteen years earlier, when Sethe and her young children escaped the humiliation of slavery. She ran away from Sweet Home, where for ten years she and six men were the property of the Mr. Garner until he died. It was then things changed, when they became the mistreated property of "School Teacher." Whereas Mr. Garner believed in treating his slaves with respect, like teaching Halle letters and numbers, allowing Sethe to marry Halle, and letting Halle buy his mother's freedom, School Teacher and his two nephews degraded the men and woman beyond tolerance. Thus Sethe, about to give birth to her fourth child, is determined that her children will be free, sends her first three ahead to Halle's mother's, Baby Suggs, home. She's supposed to then escape with Halle and the rest of the Sweet Home men but the plan goes awry. Halle isn't where he was supposed to be and for eighteen years she's not known the fate of any one of the Sweet Home Men. Until now that is, when Paul D arrives at Baby Suggs' home and tells her the rest of the story. After hearing Sethe's own experience, the house starts to tremble again, and Paul D. mad at just how much a woman should have to take, throws the ghost baby out of the house. But one afternoon, they return to find the dog gone and a teenage girl, who calls herself, Beloved, sitting on their porch.

Beloved is a haunting story; it tells the story of slavery, especially when it comes to the human heart, and the lengths to which a runaway slave will take to keep her children free. "Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she was settled on to love."

I highly recommend this reading experience of which no amount of narrative on my part can portray the real strength of the novel. (She won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, enough said.) The style is that of Magic Realism, where Morrison comfortably mixes up the real with the fantastic, filling in details sentence by sentence, until we know the whole shocking story, so that it is no longer "disremembered and unaccounted for."

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 694 reviews


(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Nonfiction:

Other:

  • Dreaming Emmet (a play) (1985)
  • Margaret Garner (libretto) (2005)

Children's Books (written with Slade Morrison):

Books on Morrison:

E-Book Study Guide:

 

(back to top)

Book Marks:

 

(back to top)

About the Author:

Toni MorrisonToni Morrison was born as Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. Her parents had moved North to escape the problems of Southern racism. Toni spent her childhood reading everything from Austen to Tolstoy while her father told her folk tales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to her. In 1949, Morrison entered Howard University, a black college, in Washington DC. Morrison continued her studies at Cornwell University in New York and received her M.A. in 1955 where she wrote her thesis on William Faulkner.

From 1955-57 Morrison taught English at Texas' Southern University; from 1957-64 she taught English at Howard University. She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect in 1958, but was divorced by 1964. In 1964 she moved to Syracuse New York, with her two children to work as a textbook editor and then transferred to Random House's New York headquarters where she edited books including those by black authors Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She continued to teach at the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schwitzer chair at the University of New York at Albany where she assisted writers through two-year fellowships.

Morrison's books have received wide recognition. Sula won the National Book Critics Award. Song of Solomon was the main selection of the Book-of-the Month Club, the first novel by a black writer chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1949. In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Beloved. But her greatest achievement was winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She has been a member of both the National Council on the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Morrison has actively used her influence to defend the role of the artist and encouraged the publication of other black writers. Morrison is Robert F. Goheen Professor, Council of the Humanities, at Princeton University.

MostlyFiction.com About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014 MostlyFiction.com