The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘The Mercies,’ a deadly storm isn’t the only danger for a Scandinavian community

Captain Ahab famously pursued his white whale Moby Dick, the elusive object of his obsession. There’s a white whale, too, on the cover of “The Mercies” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, its fluke breaching from the waves of a woman’s long hair. Fitting, since the characters in this startling, dramatic and relevant novel all have their own obsessions, most of them centered on a woman’s place in 17th-century Europe.

The whale we meet on page one of the historical fiction novel is helpless and close to death, washed up on the shore of a Danish-Norwegian island called Vardø. It’s 1617, and the area known as Finnmark lies under control of Danish King Christian IV. Maren Magnusdatter, a young woman of the local, largely Christian community, wraps her arms around the great beast, affording it some dignity as the men of her community rush to butcher it before its last gasp.

Maren, at that instant, is betrothed to Dag; her brother Erik is married to Diinna, an indigenous Sámi woman, who is pregnant. In the next instant, both Maren and Diinna will lose their futures, as will most of the other women of Vardø. “The storm comes in like a finger snap,” the women say. Forty men died, leaving their wives and daughters along with a pastor, a few young boys and three elders.

The women must cope. To keep from starving, one faction begins to mend the nets and take out the fishing boats. A few of the church-y (“kirke”) types, as well as Maren’s mother, are shocked. But Maren’s friend Kirsten, who chooses to wear men’s trousers, rallies those who care less about traditional roles and more about survival. At the same time, Diinna and others connected to the Sámi ways begin to resurrect rituals that bring them comfort.

Enter Scottish Absalom Cornet, newly appointed Lensmann for the island, and his Bergen-raised bride Ursula, known as Ursa. The book’s three sections are “Storm,” “Arrival,” and “Hunt;” it is the last one that defines Cornet’s purpose. Having already put witches to death at home, here he means to ferret out anyone, Sámi or not, who defies the church’s dicta.

Unfortunately for Cornet, Ursa and Maren nurture a bond from the moment they meet at the island’s harbor. The young wife hires her new friend to help her learn housekeeping, and the more time the two spend together, the greater their friendship grows, turning to passion as naturally as the tides change.

Hargrave, a poet, playwright and prizewinning children’s book author, takes a little-known historical event and expands it not just into a compelling story but into a matriarchal tragedy. Maren, Ursa, Diinna, Kirsten are constrained by time and circumstance, yet they are still defined on their own terms. Writing a feminist historical novel always involves a delicate tightrope walk between modern ideas and cultural reality. “The Mercies” succeeds in that walk, and on finishing you may find that you’ve been holding your breath in hopes that Maren will survive.

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”

The Mercies

By Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Little, Brown. 352 pp. $27

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