This book is set on a small, remote island in Finnmark, Norway in 1617. It opens with one of our main characters, Maren, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all the other women in her village. Together, they stare, transfixed, horrified, at a violent storm that erupts so suddenly, in the following years people will say that it came in like a finger snap. But that doesn’t really do it justice.
“And then the sea rises up and the sky swings down and greenish lightning slings itself across everything, flashing the black into an instantaneous, terrible brightness.”
Their small village on the island of Vardø is ruled by the sea. Every adult male was out on their fishing boats when the storm crashed in. None of them survived, and the women are left to fend for themselves as winter rolls in.
I cannot tell you the dread I felt while reading the opening of this book. Vardø is north of the arctic circle. It’s so harsh that trees don’t grow there, and during the depth of the winter, the townspeople live in a world of eternal darkness.
This is 1617. Gender roles are treated almost like unwritten laws. Women aren’t supposed to fish, and many would think it better that the whole village starve to death than for them to fend for themselves without men.
Even some of the women believe this.
As the surviving villagers cling to life, factions begin to emerge. On one side are the Kirke (Church) women, good, godly Christians. On the other are those who would risk everything to stay alive.
A new minister is sent to them in the months following the loss of their men, and his arrival only deepens the divide in the village. Thinking that he’s helping, he writes to the local lensmann (a sort of feudal sheriff meets overseer of fiefdoms in Norway at the time), asking for aid.
In answer, the lensmann sends a man named Absalom Cornet. His wife, Ursula, is the other main character in this story, and through her we slowly get the measure of Absalom. From the first time you meet him, you distrust him. His casual, violent misuse of his wife will quickly deepen that distrust to disgust, but with each passing chapter, that disgust will morph into a dark, burning hatred.
He’s something of a rockstar in this world, because in his home country of Scotland, he was a revered witch hunter. Most Americans think of Salem when the phrase “witch trial” is thrown about, but what they don’t realize is that the fanaticism about burning women at the stake came over from Europe.
Scotland saw it’s own terrors. England too. The fear and stigma and persecution even extended to tiny, remote islands in Norway. Like Vardø.
While this is a work of historical fiction, it’s based on real events. Up until this point, most of the people charged with witchcraft in Norway were men of the native population, the Sámi. The king intentionally targeted them in what can only be described as a thinly veiled ethnic cleansing. And then he imported a bunch of witch hunters from western Europe, and they brought their misogyny with them.
When you add a man like Cornet to a village full of women that are already divided, each side disliking and distrusting the other, a bad situation quickly goes from uncomfortable to dangerous.
“She had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”
The religious zealotry became palpable after his arrival, with the worst sort of internalized misogyny erupting not long after. Any woman not conforming to “womanly” or “godly” behavior ran the risk of standing accused of witchcraft, and the fervor of the accusers was both spectacular and terrifying to witness. It brought to mind the description of the storm. Like a finger snap. That’s how quickly everything can change. That’s how close to the edge everyone is living when their neighbor could turn on them for something as small as a dirty look.
What was almost as hard to read was this underlying awareness of the danger of men. They held near-absolute power over women during this time period, and reading about how helpless their wives and subjects were made my skin crawl.
So, no, this book isn’t easy to read, but it’s definitely worth reading. Maren and Ursula, as two of the few women able to see with eyes wide open what is happening around them, cling to each other and their sanity. Their close friendship slowly develops over the course of this book into something more, something neither of them can define.
On that note, while this book has a lot of darkness in it, there is also a lot of light. Messages about love and forgiveness and kindness and empathy can be found in each chapter, a sort of ballast against the fear and hatred. A reminder that even in times of upheaval and turmoil, it’s still possible for good to triumph over evil.
I’m happy to say that it does in this book, and it is so cathartic in the way it plays out that I can easily see myself reading this again and again in the years to come.
Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Company for granting us an ARC of The Mercies on NetGalley.