amercy1American geography is often simplified into two colors along state lines, but Nobel laureate Toni Morrison returns to our variegated past in her new novel, “A Mercy.” The moveable feast of Native American, Dutch, French, Spanish, English and parochial territories is at once alien and intimate, for here is the primordial muck of commerce from which our country evolved.

The year is 1690, and Jacob Vaark is an orphan-made-good as a New World trader. A plantation owner asks him to accept one of his slaves as partial payment on a debt, which Vaark refuses until the cook begs him to take her young daughter. This act is the novel’s eponymous mercy. Vaark and his wife, Rebekka, have lost all their children in infancy, and young Florens joins the homestead as a replacement child. Two other “strays” live there, too: Lina, the lone survivor of a smallpox epidemic, and Sorrow, a pregnant and mentally unsound survivor of a shipwreck. “They were orphans, each and all,” Lina says.

Read more. (From The Oregonian, November 14, 2008.)