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One of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart, like Beloved, it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter—a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.
difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at Jublio and a remote labor force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. Clear and right. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting. The heat was still pressing, his bed partner overac-tive, yet he slept well enough. Probably because his dreams were of a grand house of many rooms rising on a hill above the fog.
up—all but the sleeping man. Lina recognized them from the wagon Florens had boarded. Her heart seized. What happened? “Evening,” said the man. “Evening,” replied Lina. “Is this your land, Ma’am?” he asked. “No. But you are welcome here.” “Well, thank you. We won’t tarry.” He relaxed as did the others. “I remember you,” said Lina. “From the wagon. To Hartkill.” There was a long silence as they considered an answer. Lina went on, “There was a maid with you. I put her aboard.” “There
store. Calm, she decided; spring was settling itself into growing season. Reassured, she went back into the sickroom where she heard Mistress mumbling. More self-pity? No, not an apology to her own face this time. Now, amazingly, she was praying. For what, to what, Lina did not know. She was both startled and embarrassed, since she had always thought Mistress polite to the Christian god, but indifferent, if not hostile, to religion. Well, Lina mused, deathbreath was a prime creator, a great
tops that, for all she knew, broke open the sky. Now and again a hulk-ing pelted shape standing among the trees watched them ride by. Once when an elk crossed their path, Sir had to swerve and turn the horse around four times before it would go forward again. So when she followed Sir’s horse into a sun-drenched clearing and heard the cackle of ducks neither she nor Twin could have been more relieved. Unlike the housewife, Mistress and Lina both had small, straight noses; Mistress’ skin was like
them, none cruel, all kind. Especially the master who, unlike their more-or-less absent owner, never cursed or threatened them. He even gave them gifts of rum during Christmastide and once he and Willard shared a tipple straight from the bottle. His death had saddened them enough to disobey their owner’s command to avoid the poxed place; they volun-teered to dig the last, if not the final, grave his widow would need. In dousing rain they removed five feet of mud and hurried to get the body down