Toni Morrison has already used the title “Paradise” for the 1998 novel that I think is her weakest. But it would have been a good fit for her new book, “A Mercy,” which reveals her, once more, as a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. Her two greatest novels, “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved,” render the rural countryside so evocatively that you can smell the earth; even in the urban novel “Jazz,” the most memorable images are of the South its characters have left behind. But Morrison, of course, is African-American, and hers is a distinctly postcolonial pastoral: a career-long refutation of Robert Frost’s embarrassing line “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The plantation called Sweet Home, in “Beloved,” is neither sweet to its slaves nor home to anyone, except the native Miamis, of whom nothing is left but their burial mounds. In “A Mercy,” a 17th-century American farmer—who lives near a town wink-and-nudgingly called Milton—enriches himself by dabbling in the rum trade and builds an ostentatious, oversize new house, for which he orders up a fancy wrought-iron gate, ornamented with twin copper serpents: when the gate is closed, their heads meet to form a blossom. The farmer, Jacob Vaark, thinks he’s creating an earthly paradise, but Lina, his Native American slave, whose forced exposure to Presbyterianism has conveniently provided her with a Judeo-Christian metaphor, feels as if she’s “entering the world of the damned.”
In this American Eden, you get two original sins for the price of one—the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa—and it’s not hard to spot the real serpents: those creatures Lina calls “Europes,” men whose “whitened” skins make them appear on first sight to be “ill or dead,” and whose great gifts to the heathens seem to be smallpox and a harsh version of Christianity with “a dull, unimaginative god.”
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.