The Nobel laureate has published a new novel, A Mercy, which examines slavery through
the prism of power, not race.
Morrison achieves this by setting A Mercy in 1680s America, when slavery was a color-blind,
equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become.
This stands in sharp contrast to Beloved, Morrison's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about
a black woman who kills her daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. In Beloved,
skin color and slavery are inextricably linked.
There is a Native American slave woman whose tribe has been destroyed by white settlers
and smallpox. And there are two young girls: Sorrow, a white orphan discovered on a
foundered ship, and Florens, a 16-year-old black slave whose mother begged Jacob to
take her, sensing that Florens' life would be better in Jacob's household. Also working
Jacob's land are two white, male indentured servants, Will and Scully. Their masters have
rented them to Jacob, and the illiterate servants have little hope of escaping their
This tiny community is upended by two events: the arrival of a charismatic African
blacksmith who is free, and Jacob's death from smallpox. Florens falls in love with
the blacksmith, only to find heartbreak and despair. And Jacob's death reveals the
powerlessness of these rootless men and women trying to hew a life on the coast of a
continent that is physically magnificent, frighteningly mysterious and terribly dangerous.