'The Mercies' is a spark of light on a bleak shore

'The Mercies' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
"The Mercies" by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Courtesy Photo

It's 1617. A storm blows up so suddenly that it seems like evil magic and wipes out the entire male population of Vardø, a little fishing village off the coast of Norway. The women watch as the sea consumes their husbands, fathers, and brothers whole. Left on their own, they swallow their grief and set about trying to survive.

Maren lost almost everything in the storm. Her father, brother, and fiancé are all dead. Her mother is strange and distant, and her Sami sister-in-law draws into herself, not caring if the other women know that she's turning to non-Christian beliefs and charms for comfort. Maren feels so alone, it's as if the storm washed away her entire life.

It comes as a shock when, long after it seems like the world had forgotten them, a new Commissioner is summoned to oversee what remains of their village. It soon becomes clear that he has come with a dark purpose: to root out the magic that he is certain caused the storm and continues to corrupt the women of Vardø. He has done this work before — the work of finding and burning witches.

But the Commissioner does not arrive in Vardø alone. He brings his new wife, Ursa, who is accustomed to a sheltered and privileged life and is wholly unprepared for the hardships of the far north. Terrified of her husband, she hesitantly looks for comfort among Vardø's headstrong and independent women.

Maren and Ursa find each other strange at first, but soon everything dims in comparison to their desire to be in each other's company. Their bond intensifies as the Commissioner begins arresting Vardø's women and sending them to the stake, and it's only a matter of time before his attention turns to Maren.

Witches have been having an ongoing moment in pop culture. Funny how, when women's rights are threatened, the zeitgeist turns to witchcraft in a desperate search for a supernatural power that women alone can wield. But The Mercies isn't really about witchcraft at all. The women who the Commissioner comes for aren't really practicing magic arts. Instead they're accused of variations on two crimes: The first is finding comfort their pre-Christian religious traditions, and the second is acting like men. Wearing trousers, fishing, taking too deep an interest in other women — these are the sins that will send them to the stake.

The appeal of being a witch is the embracing of women's power. The thing that makes men burn them them is the fear that their own power is being stolen.

I find that any book about witch trials creates first and foremost a feeling of impotent helplessness. What logic and reason can be applied when the law embraces malicious nonsense? And given that there's more than enough in the present to feel impotent and helpless about, what is the appeal of exploring women's senseless suffering 400 years in the past?

For me, the appeal is in watching them find strength in each other. They labor, they teach each other, and they face the cruel sea and the even more capricious brutality of men. In every wind-blown crag and damp crevice of this book, women find ways to survive and live or die on their own terms.

It's also a love story. When they meet, Ursa is as soft as some sort of ungainly sea creature stranded on the rocks when the tide goes out, and Maren is hardened like a barnacle clinging to those same rocks with all her might. They temper each other, creating warmth and light at the far edge of the world.

So successful is this bloom of hope that I found myself full of wishes for them — for a little cottage someplace away from the gaze of malice and a happily-ever-after. In the end, I don't know that it was the book I wanted it to be, but it was unapologetically itself. The Mercies smolders more intensely than a pyre, whirling history's ashes defiantly into the wind.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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