The Mercies by Kirin Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies

by Kirin Millwood Hargrave

After the men in an Arctic Norwegian town are wiped out, the women must survive a sinister threat in this "perfectly told" 1600s parable of "a world gone mad" (Adriana Trigiani).

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.

Three years later, a stranger arrives on their shore. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil. As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

Reviewed by Kelly on

5 of 5 stars

Throughout the island fishing village of Vardø, the women grieve for their husbands, their sons and their fathers as the weather churned the ocean, the fishermen losing their lives. The women of Vardø gathered their deceased loved ones, waiting until the season thawed the hardest terrain and farewelled those captured by the ocean as a man arrives on the Norwegian island. A man of the church to guide the female community spiritually and morally.

Maren Magnusdatter has lost her father, her betrothed and her brother, a newlywed young man expecting his first child. To survive, the women must become self reliant and although the newly appointed Christian Pastor believes it to be improper, food is scarce and the women, more than capable, embrace the role of hunters and gatherers.

The Mercies is based on an event that occurred during the early seventeenth century. A storm decimated Finnmark, forty men lost their lives in Vardø where it is said that the sky and sea merged to drown ten fishing vessels, resulting in the now infamous Vardøhus witch trials and genocide of Indigenous Sámi communities.

Maren is a formidable young woman, intelligent and resilient. Since the storm claimed the lives of the men of Vardø, including her father, brother and her betrothed, the atmosphere within the small coastal village is precarious, women who place their faith in Christianity and those who are tenaciously pursuing their independence. Neither mutually exclusive. The Christian women of Vardø are relying upon the Pastor and Lensmann Absolom Cornet, a Scotsman on behalf of the Monarchy instilled to ensure Christian values are being adhered and practised. The brutality and violence against women is confrontational, women are expected to marry and bear children, serve their community and attend church services. The Lensmann appointment has reverberated throughout the village, creating fissures within the community. On his journey to the small fishing village, Lensmann Cornet married Ursula, a dispirited young woman who reluctantly abandoned her family, her once privileged life and stately home for a small homestead on the island.

The tentative companionship of Maren and Ursula is tender and beautiful, Ursula enlisting the guidance of Maren to learn the customs of the Vardø community and tending to her home. As the Lensmann travelled under his appointment of the monarch, Ursula and Maren begun to depend on one another. Although Maren was betrothed to the young son of a village fishermen, she is attracted to women, preferring their company. Especially Ursula.

Maren's mother is becoming increasingly volatile, choosing the company of the Christian townswomen and isolating Diina and her grandson. Diina's shamanic faith victimising the young mother still grieving for her husband. The courage and fortitude of the women of Vardø is inspirational, especially Kirsten Sorensdatter, trouser wearer and reindeer caretaker. Kirsten's independence reverberates in whispers throughout the village, those who disobey the Lensmann and refuse to follow the teachings of Christianity are branded as witches, held responsible for the storm. The women guided by Kirsten didn't survive, they thrived until the Lensmann arrived.

The Mercies is a narrative of quiet feminism and the fortitude of woman. The women of Vardø refusing to yield as they are sentenced to death by those shielding behind their faith. Women who refuse to adhere to Christianity and traditional female roles of caregivers, wives and homemakers are branded and sentenced. A remarkable story and beautifully told, The Mercies is unequivocally breathtaking.

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  • Started reading
  • 28 February, 2020: Finished reading
  • 28 February, 2020: Reviewed