Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book #52: What's Historical about the Historical Novel? Toni Morrison's Latest Novel

"I will keep one sadness.  That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me.  Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her."

                                                                                                    -Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Recently, I've found myself craving historical fiction ... perhaps because I'm trying to write an historical novel myself.  Seeking to learn from the master of this genre, I picked up Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy. It's a surprisingly slender novel, but perhaps one of her most ambitious.  It seems as though throughout her career, Morrison has been progressively stepping back in time: beginning with her partly autobiographical first novel, The Bluest Eye; winning the Pulitzer Prize for her masterpiece Beloved, set in the antebellum South; and now receding even further into the historical imagination with A Mercy, set in the 1680s when slavery and the very idea of "America" were still in embryonic form.

The mercy at the core of the story concerns a young slave girl named Florens, born into slavery at a plantation in Maryland.  Yet Florens is not your typical slave girl; since childhood, she was "never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes," leading her mother to accuse her of putting on the airs of a "Portuguese lady," and she is quick to learn how to write from an old Reverend who secretly teaches her.  When Jacob Vaark, an adventurer from the North, visits the plantation to claim repayment on a debt, he finds the plantation in financial ruins.  In lieu of the debt, Jacob is offered payment in the form of a slave, and although he finds the slave trade distasteful, on a whim, he accepts Florens - perhaps moved by how the girl's mother beseeches him, kneeling on the ground.

But Florens' life on the Vaark farm - particularly after the master dies - proves anything but serene.  She becomes part of a strange survivors' colony of displaced women, centred around the master's wife Rebekka, a woman who might just as easily have been a prostitute back in England, had she not opted for her arranged marriage overseas.  The voices of these eccentric characters are all vividly rendered, but what I found most enticing about this novel is the emotional conundrum at its core.  Uprooted from the only home she knew and torn away from her mother, Florens is stripped of her identity and left flailing to forge a new self in the wild, never able to understand or forgive her abandonment - ironically, the "mercy" that was her mother's greatest sacrifice.

As I thought further about this historical novel, it occurred to me that what makes it so delightfully readable is actually the dearth of historical details.  The history of the period is used very sparingly, more implied than explained.  For instance, as Jacob tours the D'Ortega plantation, the "tobacco odor, so welcoming when he arrived, now nauseated him.  Or was it the sugared rice, the hog cuts fried and dripping with molasses, the cocoa Lady D'Ortega was giddy about?"  These carefully chosen details about what he was served for lunch encapsulate a whole history of conspicuous consumption and plantation culture, which, however fascinating, never overpowers the story.  History does not intrude on the emotions of the characters who drive the narrative.
A couple weeks ago, I was at my writing workshop, where my friend Diane warned me against the pitfalls of using too much historical research and exposition in my novel.  She quoted the author David Gilmour: "It's not what you put into your writing, it's what you take out."  Too true.  Time to read A Mercy again....  So much to be learned from Morrison's pared down aesthetics.

Photo from: here                                                                                                                     


Naomi said...

I cannot imagine how sad it must be not to know your mother as a daughter striving to find herself. A friend of mine knew but never really understood her mother and she, too, felt rootless in trying to find herself. I will look for Morrison's new book. Thanks!

Jim said...

If I can make one tiny quibble, and I think it was how you wrote the sentence (maybe refering instead to the novel at hand), BELOVED actually is a postbellum novel; although events described did occur prior to the war, the novel is set in the 1870s, if I remember correctly. I sometimes think historical fiction is a wonderfulw ay to get people to think about historical events, even perhaps send them to the history texts, and even better, the primary sources. Good luch with your project.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks for the catch, Jim! I pulled my copy off my bookshelf and you are right that BELOVED is set in the 1870s.... The scenes that look back to Sethe's days as a slave "protecting" her infant daughter (I shan't say how to avoid SPOILER territory for those who haven't read it) stand out most vividly in my mind. I guess that's why I remembered this novel as an antebellum novel.

Jim said...

Have you tried Stockett's THE HELP? I really enjoyed it.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks for the suggestion. It's on my to-read list! I've heard good things about it from other friends, too.


Related Posts with Thumbnails

About Me

My photo
Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.