It is 1617 and nearly all the men of the northeasternmost city of Vardo, Norway have been tragically killed by a storm while fishing out at sea. That leaves the women and children of Vardo to fend for themselves. Maren is among those women. Maren must find a way to balance the headstrong Kirsten who feels that no tradition is too sacred to be broken in service of herself, the pious Toril who passes judgment on anyone who does not fall in line with her values, and her sister-in-law Diina who feels apart from the rest of the village as an indigenous Sami woman. Complications arise when a new commissioner, Absalom Cornet, arrives with his new wife, Ursula. The commissioner is determined to stamp out witchcraft and bring the village of Vardo to heel under the control and rule of Norwegian law.
What truly unfolds in The Mercies is a love story between Maren and Ursula. Ursula is used to living in a lavish home with servants, cooks, and maids, so when she arrives in Vardo in square house and no help, she is woefully unprepared to even live so meagerly. Maren steps in to help teach Ursula how to cook and clean, and the two develop a deep and loving relationship. The two must rely on each other to survive their lives in Vardo. Ultimately, The Mercies is a hopeful book albeit not a happy one. Maren and Ursula craft space in their lives for each other and each learns to lean into that space, an act that takes strength and courage.
Hargrave’s writing is beautiful. Her prose borders on poetic at time without dipping into ubiquity of overly-flowery language. The way that Hargrave describes the environment of Vardo is truly mesmerizing. It made this Houston boy want to pack up and visit the Arctic. Hargrave also does a truly marvelous job of describing the mundanities of life without ever feeling mundane. Sweeping and cooking and fishing all take on their own quiet beauty in The Mercies.
At the same time, this book made me so mad. I was shaking at one point with anger. Between the way that indigenous people and culture are demonized, the fake and self-serving pioty of villagers and the Commissioner, the casual violence that those in power engage in to maintain their power, and the quick turning on friend and neighbor, there’s plenty to be mad at. However the part that made me most angry came at the end, so spoilers ahead.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW]. I physically and audibly yelled when Sigfrid and Toril started telling Kirsten to breathe deeply and had to walk away from the book when Maren’s mother saw the error of her ways as if no one had warned them or tried to get them to back down! Maren was right there the whole time telling y’all! Seriously though, Hargrave handles the ending so deftly.