A Mercy, By Toni Morrison

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The Independent Culture

Set in 17th-century Virginia, Morrison's first novel in five years takes place on a small farm run by Anglo-Dutch trader, Jacob Vaark. Although Vaark does not trade in human flesh, he agrees to accept a young Angolan slave, Florens, in part payment for a bad debt.

Florens joins a largely female household that already includes the entrepreneur's English wife, Rebekka, her Native American maid, Lina, and Sorrow, a shipwrecked foundling. Each woman, in varying degrees, finds herself a slave.

From such an iconic writer as Morrison, portentous pronouncements are almost expected. In this novel, the story of America's messy birth lies in its terms of enslavement: "To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing."