A harsh reminder that injustice is merely a heartbeat away

21 September 2020 - 15:04 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
'The Mercies' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
'The Mercies' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
Image: Supplied

On Christmas Eve 1617, a storm materialised off the coast of the small island of Vardø in Norway, drowning most of the island's men while out fishing.

Eyewitnesses said the storm appeared out of nowhere, almost as if conjured by someone. Two women - Mari Jøgensdatter and Kirsti Sørensdatter - were accused, interrogated and tortured for opening “their ‘wind-knots’ over the sea to make a boat sink”.

The Mercies is based on this real event, as well as the Vardø witch trials that took place three years later at Vardøhus, the seat of power of the region.

By the end of the witch hunt, over 80 women had been burnt at the stake.

These women were put on trial, accused of sorcery, making pacts with the devil and sleeping with demons while the men were out at sea (also read Jill Beatty's piece on the witch trials on The Norwegian American website).

At the centre of the story is Maren Magnusdatter, a 20-year-old woman who is on the verge of getting married when the storm hits the coast of Vardø.

“The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only an ache behind their eyes and a crushing at the base of their throats.”

Maren's husband-to-be, father and brother all succumb in the storm, which leaves the island's women initially struggling to survive, but later providing for themselves by fishing and trading.

After a year passes, they have settled into their new way of live – only to be severely disrupted by the arrival of commissioner Absalom Cornet, who is tasked to covert the “uncultured” people of Vardø to Christians with the assistance of Lensmann of Finnmark, John Cunningham.

"We are no better than a pack of cards to that man. He has allowed us to build ourselves higher than we thought we could, and he may choose to knock it all down.”

When Cornet arrives on the island, he brings with him his newly-wedded wife Ursula – a young, inexperienced city woman from Bergen who he practically bought from her morally and financially bankrupt father.

Ursa swiftly has to adapt to the rough island life, play the perfect housewife and fulfil her wifely sexual duties without any say in the matter. To Cornet she’s merely property acquired which he treats with little to no respect.

Most of Hargrave’s female characters are strong, complicated women whose fortitude and tenacity under hostile circumstances are admirable. The men are mostly depicted as either weak, for example the pastor, or cruel and abusive like Cornet.

However, not all the female characters are admirable, honourable women. Torvil, Sigrid and the group of Bible-wielding religious fanatics, including Maren’s mother, blindly take the side of Cornet and his cronies. They are also largely to blame for the irrational and contemptible persecution of Kirsten and Dinna, Maren’s Sami sister-in-law.

The unfairness and ultimately the futility of these women’s fates – fates which were decided by the church – is what makes The Mercies a chilling read. It also highlights the power of superstition and the inherent fear humans have for anything they cannot explain or do not understand.

Across the world people are still being prosecuted for their faith and many wars are waged using religion as the driving force.

The Mercies vividly describes the atrocities that took place on Vardø when a group of people were given the power to decide the fate of others based on their own misplaced and ultimately evil interpretation of religion.

Realising that atrocities such as the Vardø witch trials were taking place worldwide in the 1600s in the name of religious belief will make you thankful for the times we live in, yet make you wonder if we’ve learnt anything from history. Across the world people are still being prosecuted for their faith and many wars are waged using religion as the driving force.

Hargrave’s debut adult novel should be on the top of your reading list not only for its engrossing subject matter, but also for her beautifully descriptive and almost dream-like writing. Although her poetic style is in stark contrast to the story itself, it perfectly underscores the surreal nature of the events.

She has the exceptional skill of describing the characters and their lives in an inhospitable environment through the economical, yet visually convincing use of words. In a single sentence she sums up the life-changing event of the demise of the island’s men.

"As she watches, a final flash of lightning illuminates the hatefully still sea, and from its blackness rise oars and rudders and a full mast with gently stowed sails, like underwater forests uprooted. Of their men, there is no sign."

Although we’ve come a long way from burning innocent women at the stake, persecution takes many other, more subtle forms, even 400 years later. The Mercies is a harsh reminder that injustice is merely a heartbeat away if it’s not actively opposed.