Based on a historical event, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave tells the story of a village on a remote island in 17th century Norway after a once-in-a-lifetime storm kills the village’s fishermen. Following the loss of their husbands, brothers and sons, Vardø becomes a settlement of women. At first they grieve then they struggle to survive without men, but survive they do. Eighteen months later a government official arrives to impose control on a female population at the edge of nowhere. He finds the women behaving in an unseemly manner, behaving as men, forsaking church and flirting with officially disapproved-of Sámi rituals.
Hargrave tells the story of the women of Vardø through the viewpoints of two very different women. Maren Magnusdatter’s fiancé Dag is killed in the storm. So are her father and brother. She lives in a claustrophobic house with her elderly mother, her Sámi sister-in-law Diinna and Diinna’s son Erik. Ursula lives in Bergen with her widowed father and sister. When her father proposes a marriage match to Absalom Cornet, a Scottishman, Ursa imagines ice and darkness. She sails north with her new husband, a stranger, of whom she knows nothing.
When they arrive on the island of Vardø, Ursa is unused to the ways of the far north, the cold, the starkness of life and, used to a servant, cannot keep house or make food. Her house becomes slovenly, her thin inadequate clothes caked with mud. Maren takes pity on the newcomer and helps her prepare meat and make a coat from furs. A close friendship grows between the two women. Hargrave’s portrayal of the machinations of this small female community – the alliances, the petty jealousies, the childhood envies, the gossip, the lies – is spot-on. But while the women are watching each other, Commissioner Cornet is watching them and looking for signs of witchcraft. Maren and Ursa encourage Diinna to at least attend church, to set aside her Sámi folklore habits of stones and poppets, but Diinna will not become someone she is not. And then Ursa’s husband makes his first arrest and for the first time Ursa understands she is married to a witchfinder.
I quickly became absorbed in the story of these women and the situation in which they find themselves. It is a difficult read at the beginning, the setting is dour and the life hard, descriptions of the daily privations are depressing, but the growing relationship between the two women lies at the core of the story.
The middle section sags a little as there is a pause in the action, waiting for the witch hunting to begin. The final third is devastating.
A fascinating book about a harrowing story.
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