Abandonment, betrayal and loss are the somber themes of this latest exploration of America’s morally compromised history from Morrison (Love, 2003, etc.).
All the characters she sets down in the colonial landscape circa 1690 are bereft, none more evidently so than Florens, 16-year-old slave of Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka. Eight years earlier, Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader Jacob reluctantly took Florens in settlement of a debt from a Maryland landowner. Her own mother offered her—so as not to be traded with Florens’ infant brother, the girl thinks. (The searing final monologue reveals it was not so simple.) Florens joined a household of misfits somewhere in the North. Jacob was a poor orphan who came to America to make a new start; Rebekka’s parents essentially sold her to him to spare themselves her upkeep. The couple has shared love, but also sadness; all four of their offspring died in childhood. They take in others similarly devastated. Lina, raped by a “Europe,” has been cast out by her Native American tribe. Mixed-race Sorrow survived a shipwreck only to be made pregnant by her rescuer, who handed her over to Jacob. Willard and Scully are indentured servants, farmed out to labor for Jacob by their contract holders, who keep fraudulently extending their time. Only the free African blacksmith who helps Jacob construct his fancy new house—and who catches Florens’ love-starved eye—seems whole and self-sufficient, though he eventually falls prey to Florens’ raging fear of abandonment. Morrison’s point, made in a variety of often-melodramatic plot developments, is that America was founded on the involuntary servitude of blacks and whites, that the colonies are rife with people who belong nowhere else and anxiously strive to find something to hold onto in the New World. Gorgeous language and powerful understanding of the darkest regions in the human heart compensate for the slightly schematic nature of the characters and the plot.
Better seen as a lengthy prose poem than a novel, this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own shadowy luster to the Nobel laureate’s shimmering body of work.