One of the best things about good historical fiction is that it can bring to life particular historical moments and scenes which even history buffs like me weren’t previously aware of. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s new book, The Mercies, is that kind of historical novel, taking us to early 17th century Norway and an isolated island community, first struck with a natural catastrophe and then by a more sinister man-made one.
The first tragedy is a natural one, so absolute it seems almost supernatural to the survivors. The men of the small, isolated island of Vardo, near the Arctic Circle, set out on a fishing trip one night, and out of nowhere a huge wave flips over all the boats, drowning nearly all the male population of the island in a few moments as their wives, sisters and mothers watch from the shore.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the women of the island try to survive any way they can. If this involves taking advantage of their Sami neighbors’ charms and runes despite the nominal Christianity of the island’s women, so be it. If it involves the women taking to the sea and fishing for themselves, even though that’s supposed to be men’s work, they’ll do it. Grief and hard times cause the women to react differently, and rifts that probably already existed before the tragedy become accentuated and stronger over time.
This would be a difficult enough situation if there were no interference from the outside world, which usually has very little to do with Vardo. However, there are new church leaders, heavily influenced by the work of King James of Scotland, and filled with the desire to straighten out these potentially heathen outlanders and bring them into the church’s fold again. If you’re like me, when you hear King James’ name, you think of his writings against witches and the witch trials he sparked throughout his territories, and of course when you have women acting in non-traditional ways, and a huge tragedy that seems almost supernatural, accusations of witchcraft are pretty much guaranteed, with wrenching, heartbreaking results.
Our main characters are two women. One is Maren, a resident of the island, who lost her father, brother and fiancee in the storm, and who then tries to hold her family together afterwards. This is made more complicated by the fact that Maren’s brother’s widow was a Sami woman, and mother and daughter-in-law are becoming more hostile toward each other.
The other woman is Ursa (short for Ursula), daughter of a formerly well-to-do merchant in Bergen, who’s married to the new Commissioner, Absalom Cornet. Ursa is naive, lost, unsure of her position on the island and only gradually comes to realize what her husband is actually doing on the island, after she’s already begun to build relationships with various women, including Maren.
The author does a great job of recreating the environment. If ever there was a book with a strong sense of place, this is it. You can feel the cold, the meagerness of the houses. You can smell the slaughtered reindeer that hang in Ursa’s new home, you can see the isolation of the individual houses and the women who live inside them. If you want to read a book that takes you out of your ordinary environment, you’ll definitely appreciate this.
The other strength of the book is the characters. It would be too easy for a modern author to turn all the characters, male and female, into stereotypes, spokespeople for various modern points of view. You’d have the staunchly feminist women coming into their own in the absence of men, you’d have the villainous male church officials, you’d have the Christian women being bigoted and narrow minded, you’d have the Sami characters as noble indigenous people being persecuted for no reasons. It is to Hargrave’s credit that nobody, not even the most heinous person, comes across as a caricature. Even the people who infuriate you (and there are several) have foibles and weaknesses and are neither completely evil nor all-powerful, and our protagonists also have their moments of cowardice and denial. They’re all real people, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can see elements of these characters in modern men and women as well.
I’m not going to lie: this book is historically accurate (there’s a note at the end detailing the real life events that inspired it), and therefore it is not a fun, light read. People did terrible things during witch hysteria, and Hargrave doesn’t sugar coat any of it. However, despite the darkness and the violence of a lot of the book, there is a satisfying ending, not a happy one, but one that feels right for the characters and the time.
If you’re interested in a historical novel that draws you in and won’t let you go, check out The Mercies.