A good book for Thanksgiving. I won't have money to buy it or time to read it till heaven knows when, but I really want to. The New York Times Book Review for this weekend has a front-page essay about it.
... In “A Mercy,” a 17th-century American farmer — who lives near a town wink-and-nudgingly called Milton — enriches himself by dabbling in the rum trade and builds an ostentatious, oversize new house, for which he orders up a fancy wrought-iron gate, ornamented with twin copper serpents: when the gate is closed, their heads meet to form a blossom. The farmer, Jacob Vaark, thinks he’s creating an earthly paradise, but Lina, his Native American slave, whose forced exposure to Presbyterianism has conveniently provided her with a Judeo-Christian metaphor, feels as if she’s “entering the world of the damned.”
In this American Eden, you get two original sins for the price of one — the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa — and it’s not hard to spot the real serpents: those creatures Lina calls “Europes,” men whose “whitened” skins make them appear on first sight to be “ill or dead,” and whose great gifts to the heathens seem to be smallpox and a harsh version of Christianity with “a dull, unimaginative god.” Jacob is as close as we get to a benevolent European. Although three bondswomen (one Native American, one African and one “a bit mongrelized”) help run his farm, he refuses to traffic in slaves; the mother of the African girl, in fact, has forced her daughter on him because the girl is in danger of falling into worse hands and he seems “human.” Yet Jacob’s money is no less tainted than if he’d wielded a whip himself: it simply comes from slaves he doesn’t have to see in person, working sugar plantations in the Caribbean. And the preposterous house he builds with this money comes to no good. It costs the lives of 50 trees (cut down, as Lina notes, “without asking their permission”), his own daughter dies in an accident during the construction, and he never lives to finish it.
True, some of the white settlers are escapees from hell: Jacob’s wife, Rebekka, whom he imported sight unseen from London, retains too-vivid memories of public hangings and drawings-and-quarterings. ...
... This novel isn’t a polemic — does anybody really need to be persuaded that exploitation is evil? — but a tragedy in which “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”
Except for a slimy Portuguese slave trader, no character in the novel is wholly evil, and even he’s more weak and contemptible than mustache-twirlingly villainous. Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. While Lina laments the nonconsensual deaths of trees, she deftly drowns a newborn baby, not, as in “Beloved,” to save it from a life of slavery, but simply because she thinks the child’s mother (the “mongrelized” girl who goes by the Morrisonian name of Sorrow) has already brought enough bum luck to Jacob’s farmstead. Everyone in “A Mercy” is damaged; a few, once in a while, find strength to act out of love, or at least out of mercy — that is, when those who have the power to do harm decide not to exercise it. A negative virtue, but perhaps more lasting than love. ...
Read the rest here.
Essay: David Gates.
Photo: Damon Winter, The New York Times.