- Toni Morrison’s A Mercy: Critical Approaches ed. by Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tally
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 œuvre, 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 [End Page 463] 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 Morrison (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 York 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 setting (in the middle of a deadline), so please check with other readers…. 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 × 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 northern location of the Vaark farm. In fact, I have no clue how...