The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

1. First lines. 2. Published 2020 Pan Macmillan and Little, Brown and Co. 3. Sami drum from Kemi Lappmark, Finland. Winkelrahmentrommel / flanged frame drum; 85 x 53 cm. Described and depicted by Johannes Schefferus in his book Lapponia (1671); later described as No 43 in Ernst Manker’s Die lappische Zaubertrommel (1938/1950). Now at Nordiska museet, Stockholm. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia 4. Stormy Sea, a painting by Peder Balke [Public domain] via Wikimedia
Men without mercy … women with courage.

Vardo in northeastern Norway is home to a small community of fishermen and their families. On Christmas Eve 1617, all the able-bodied men are drowned when a fierce storm overturns their fishing boats. Left alone on the island, the women fend for themselves. The King appoints a Scotsman called John Cunningham as lensmann (governor) so that he can stamp out the witchcraft and pagan practices on the island. A Commissioner, Absalom Cornet, is also appointed to work for the lennsman, and he brings with him his new wife Ursa to live in the community. Ursa befriends some of the women, and is horrified at her husband’s involvement in the subsequent witch trials.

“At the horizon, the smooth plains about Trondheim give way to a snarl of mountains, rising sheer as waves at the sea’s edge. When they slip into the orbit of the Arctic Circle there is little change in the view. Trees crouch at the throats of the fjords, still thick enough for Ursa to make shapes and troll faces in them; snow settles the crowns of the mountains. She watches islands slide by, defiant juts of land. As they make their turn east, she sees her first iceberg, a massive siding of white so bright it is blue and green, big as their house in Bergen, moving impenetrable as rock through the water.

“She wishes she could write, and could send a letter to Father. She would tell him that Vardo is not fine at all, but an island full of bereaved, watchful women, some of whom are not church-going. That it is cold though it is summer, and the sun doesn’t set. That they do not have a house fit for a commissioner, or in fact anything that he would recognize as a house, but a room with runes carved over its door, because it used to hold the dead.”

“Her fingernails are brittle and greyish, her mouth furred though she brushes with a birch twig until her gums sing and she spits the copper of blood into the mud. She wonders if she will ever be clean, has ever been.”

“Pastor Kurtsson brings his palms together, clasps his fingers about themselves. ‘He saw fit to save you from the storm, to guide you through the difficult time afterwards. The mercies He bestowed upon you – I cannot think His eye is turned from you.'”

“No matter that Pastor Kurtsson believed their survival after the storm to be a miracle: now Maren thinks that the mercies of God would have been better spent drowning them all.”

  • NPR:The Mercies smolders more intensely than a pyre, whirling history’s ashes defiantly into the wind.”
  • Kirkus: “This chilling tale of religious persecution is served up with a feminist bite.”
  • The Scotsman: “The novel is slow to get underway, but most readers will surely forgive this, because there is much to enjoy and admire in the patient manner in which the author sketches the background and develops her characters.”
  • NY Times: ““The Mercies” is among the best novels I’ve read in years. In addition to its beautiful writing, its subject matter is both enduring and timely. … For such a novel to center on a cast of powerful women characters seems as appropriate to its historical context as it is to our time.”

Other edition.

Historical note: In 1617, a storm hit the small town of Vardo in far north-eastern Norway. The men of the village were out fishing, and many were drowned. The authorities blamed the women of the town for using witchcraft to conjure up the storm, and in the region, many people were put on trial. At this time, both Norwegians and Sami lived in the area, and the Christian Norwegians ruling Norway were very suspicious of pagan practices. In all, 91 people were put to death by the state. Steilneset Memorial is located in Vardø near the site where women were burned after being found guilty of witchcraft. More information: Kiran Millwood Hargraves talks about her inspiration for her book. Read online: Lapponia, by John Scheffer, published in 1673.

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