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Eds. Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tally. Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Critical Approaches.

Eds. Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tally. Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Critical Approaches. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2011. 160 pp. $52.99.

Of Toni Morrison's last six novels, A Mercy (2008) provides the lone title prefaced with an article that specifies the presence or, in this case, absence of definiteness of the noun. A motif echoing throughout her ceuvre, the presence of absence is also, in this case, reflected by Morrison's clearly and frequently stated intention to explore a time before American slavery became identified with race. In their 2011 collection of essays, Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tally set out to present "a reader's guide to A Mercy, a storehouse of various approaches" that will not only provide Morrison scholars and students with "an assortment of avenues" into the text's treatment of race, broadly interpreted, difference and absence, but of other social determiners such as gender, religion, geography, and class (1). And they do.

In tribute to them, I attempt in this review not only to provide an overview and assessment of those critical approaches, but to engage with them as the editors intend. The book begins with an exploration of geographic, ecological, and domestic space as defined by James Braxton Peterson and Anissa Janine Wardi. While this reader finds Peterson's essay to rely a tad too heavily on critical jargon, I do appreciate the cutting edge of a piece that, rightly, critiques Morrison's among contemporary ecocritical texts: "It is in/through relationships between hypothetical and (regular/ normal) focalization that certain eco-critical and narratological understandings emerge in close readings of Morrison's A Mercy" (10). I also owe to this opening chapter the location of several pieces needing critical alignment in the literary puzzle that is the novel

First, Peterson concurs with Wardi and reviewer La Vinia Delois Jennings, who designate its setting as colonial Maryland and Virginia. Jennings writes elsewhere: "A third-person narrator from a limited perspective provides the back stories for Florens, Jacob and the other characters who live or work on Jacob's burgeoning Virginia estate" Doubting in my usual Hamletesque fashion my own decision that Vaark's farm would lie in what we now call upstate New York, I appeal to two other respected Morrison scholars, wailing, "Well, what about the moose?" I envy the definiteness of an immediate reply from one:
 I can't vouch for moose's habitats during that period. But
 (not that she matters) and the descriptions in [the] narrative
 indicate that Vaark settles in Virginia. Morrison is keen to show
 that the laws established in [Virginia and Maryland] were intended
 to "racialize" blacks. Historically, I don't think New
 supports the kind of narrative we have in Mercy
. I may have
 misread the text--but I believe if you download reviews and
 articles on Mercy
, you may discover that MOST readers agree
 on Maryland and Virginia. I don't have time to confirm the
 (in the middle of a deadline), so please check with other
.... Based upon the narrative details, I believe [Vaark]
 travels from Maryland and settles in Virginia. 

When I concede that the old New World map named pretty much everything north of Maryland "Virginia" but plead that the other narrative detail I was considering is that Willard "had trouble getting used to the rougher, colder region he was moved into" after his "harder but more satisfying days in Virginia" (A Mercy 174-75), this same irrepressible colleague answers my call in no uncertain terms: "I think this uncle bequeathed [Vaark] land in this god-awful proprietary colony of VA."

Semi-deflated but still stubborn, I forward my questions to a fellow New Yorker who can't resist the challenge despite being "off to Guatemala with 15 honors stu in seven days, with 23 X 7 hrs. worth of things to do between now and then":
 [S]o I'll keep this short, but I agree with you about the
 location of the Vaark farm. In fact, I have no clue how all those
 folks who think that Jacob settled in MD or VA arrived at that
 ridiculous conclusion.
 Jacob's patroonship would have probably
 been north or west or NW of New Amsterdam, b/c that's where the
 Dutch lands were. Jacob prefers the climate of his land to that of
 Maryland because it has "four distinct seasons" (12), and
he faults
 Maryland for having "no such thing as winter"--this shouts
 NY or Vermont to me. On p. 13 we get that list of the towns and
 forts whose names change [as] frequently as they change hands; they
 appear to be towns & forts Jacob sees regularly on his travels:
 Fort Orange (Albany), Wiltwyck (Kingston, in the Catskills), Nieuw
 Amsterdam, Cape Henry (VA Beach, entrance to Chesapeake). In
 Vaark's "own geography he was moving from Algonquin"
(who lived
 largely north
 of Lake Ontario in the early 17th C) "to
 Sesquehanna," and of course the headwater of the mighty
 is li'l ol' Otsego Lake over there in your neck of the
 But it's the weather at Jacob's farm that tells the tale.
 Florens gets sent north to Jacob's with the priest, it becomes
 "hurting cold" (7) two days into the voyage, and Florens
darn near
 freezes after her wooden shoes and cloak are stolen. When they
 arrive at Jacob's farm, F sees "knives" of ice hanging
from trees
 and house, and the "white air" burns her face. Horens and
 sleep in a broken sleigh in the barn where the horse droppings are
 frozen solid.
 Then there's that winter when the women are snowed in and Lina
 saves their lives by going out in the blizzard, breaks the ice on
 the stream, and ties the bucket to her hair so she can keep her
 hands in her pockets so they won't freeze. And don't the
Vaark baby
 boys have to wait to be buried until the ground thaws enough to get
 a spade into ground? Sorrow was found treading water in the North
 River in Mohawk territory. Florens seeks the blacksmith in the
 early spring and it snows. Somebody [Florens 39] goes on an old
 Abenaki trail: the Abenaki lived in the NY/VT/CT/lower Canada
 region. And this is just evidence off the top of my head.
 NOT "Virginia" or "Maryland"; just can't be!
Also, driving back
 home from a birthday celebration in VT on a back road, we drove
 smack through a village called Milton, NY! 

A check on Milton, New York (established a century after Morrison's 1690s timeline, which could rule it out) leads me into contributor Tessa Roynon's study of the Miltonic journeys that render A Mercy "something of a new New England primer" (56-57) suggesting "modern life began with the whole colonial enterprise" (46). Grateful for her observations and to my two beloved friends and sweet Toni Morrison Society colleagues for their saucy e-mailed insights into the setting of A Mercy, I am almost prepared to accede to Tally, Keren Omry, and Stave, who assign Vaark's farm to Milton, Massachusetts (settled in 1640). But then I simply cannot ignore that Jacob's "patroon"-ship (Dutch for landholder in New Netherland and New York with manorial rights in the colonial era; from the French patron) derives directly from his Dutch uncle and the Dutch settled down [in] New York State, so the race for place starts over again. My first responder graciously allows that she will "rest [her] case." Worried that I might have wounded, I try to soften the blow. Once more, I learn something important: "I don't think it's a question of being 'demeaned' or 'foolish'--it strikes me as a legitimate and lively academic debate. One I relish as a student of literature." And one inspired by my reading of Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Critical Approaches.

Most things Morrisonian, however, do have their own sweet way of transforming. As I review my review almost a year later, I now have carefully saved in my files absolute proof about the location of Jacob Vaark's farm in the form of a scanned document dated May 15, 2012, and scribbled on by the lady herself, i.e. Ms. Morrison. There's a story here, too. My first responder simply forwarded her friend Toni Morrison a multiple-choice questionnaire asking her to "Please settle the following dispute among your scholars"; the letter provided answers to circle in case "you don't have time to compose a reply." Ms. Morrison, of course, prefers to write her answers. In addition to situating the farm where colonial Dutch patrons dominated, she confirms that Jacob travels from his upstate New York acreage down into Virginia and Maryland and that the blacksmith stays in New York. Because I do not have permission to do so, I cannot reveal my source, but unless Toni Morrison's contribution is of no consequence, I can offer Morrison scholars conclusive information on the colonial areas depicted in A Mercy. I can also confess that, after I received my copy of said document, the Morrison scholar closest to me, who takes on a Shakespearean persona called Susie the Fool, found herself dancing around her own house, declaring gleefully: "this woman's mama didn't raise no fool," after which she proceeded to inform her students that Jacob Vaark's farm is not too far from our campus.

If other academic debate introduced by Stave and Tally's book might not be as engagingly lively as that posed by place, it still stands useful. Questions come up about the meaning of a minha mae, the novel's title, and its conclusion. While Peterson's ensuing argument remains enlightening, i.e., that the indefinite article preceding "minha mae" (translated from the Portuguese as "my mother') highlights the emotional and geographic distance between Florens and her mother, a Portuguese colleague of one of Peterson's editors informed me via her that a minha mae means "the my mother," not a "my mother" as Peterson contends. So, is the article definite or indefinite? Is Morrison signifying the presence or absence of definiteness for Florens and her a minha mae? In a footnote Peterson indicates that he, too, observed Morrison's deliberate ambiguity with respect to her naming of Florens's mother: "In Portuguese, 'a minha mae' means 'the my mother' and it is generally the way someone would refer to his/her mother. In addressing her, one would say, 'minha mae'--my mother--but in speaking about her, the correct form would be 'the my mother.' Morrison likely understood that most English-speaking readers would not necessarily be aware of this and thus the narrative manipulation of indexical articles is worth considering here" (n10).

If Wardi's essay adds a consideration of domestic space to Peterson's focus on the geographic and ecological, it also causes me to reconsider the title of the novel. Wardi argues that "African American literature, though deeply rooted in place, is often excluded from eco-critical analysis" and that Morrison's latest novel expands the ecoliterary canon with its exploration of the politics of home (37). Representing respectively untamed land and water, Florens and Sorrow collectively map "a biophysical environment inflected with African diasporic history" as A Mercy "provides a racially and culturally inflected geography" and Morrison explores how Jacob's farm becomes home for those whose lives are in exile (23, 34). Wardi goes on to describe Jacob's acceptance of Florens as "an act that provides the title for the novel" (24). Four months before its publication, however, Morrison revealed during a reading at the Sottile Theater in Charleston, South Carolina (25 July 2008) that she changed her original title from Mercy to A Mercy because her novel depicts only one mercy. That act of mercy belongs to Florens's mother.

Shifting from the text's exploration of space to its location within the tradition of literature preceding it, the Stave/Tally edition offers Roynon's study interfacing A Mercy with Milton's Paradise Lost and Comus, Tally's argument that A Mercy contains an allegory linking it to American foundational stories and myths, including the Bible, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Miller's The Crucible; and Omry's reading of A Mercy in conjunction with Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads. The final section "focuses on issues of identity formation as tied to the psychological development of Morrison's characters" (3) with Mar Gallego-Duran's concentration on the survival strategies of the four major women characters facing the restrictions of an overarching patriarchy; Susana Vega-Gonzalez's treatment of literal and metaphorical orphan-hood in the novel; and Stave's Lacanian reading of A Mercy, with especial regard to Lacan's concept of misrecognition as related to his "mirror stage."

Having enjoyed the insights garnered from the various lenses into Morrison's work provided by these essays, I found another significant piece of my own critical puzzle to solve in their authors' differing conclusions about Morrison's conclusion. Influenced by another Morrison comment at Charleston's Sottile Theater in 2008, I include myself as one of the critics who views Florens's survival as positive: "Too bad about the guy, but she's meaner and maybe she'll survive." Roynon, Tally, Omry, Gallego-Duram, and Vega-Gonzalez would appear to agree with me. Peterson, however, contends that the novel ends with a "futile sadness" (12), and Stave states unequivocally: "While some critics see Florens's survival as potentially liberating, I do not." The conclusion she draws from Florens's overpowering rage and total lack of "ruth" rings true: "Florens can no longer co-habit with other humans, but she has immense capacity for destruction. Morrison understands this" (147). If I remain ever the stubborn optimist, I would, after reading these words, definitely describe myself as much more of a cautious one.

Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Critical Approaches is small book (160 pp.) packing some big punches. My primary lament is the lack of careful editing to eliminate a too-large number of careless errors. Other than this annoying distraction, the collection successfully meets its initial intention: "to inspire further analysis and discussion" about a novel "well worthy of thorough study" (5).

Reviewed by Susan Neal Mayberry, Alfred University
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Author:Mayberry, Susan Neal
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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