A Mercy takes place at the end of the 17th century, when America was a very wild and new place. It is the story of a household, a farm, on the edge of the wilderness in the New World. Jacob Vaark is the farmer, but it is less his story than that of the women who reside with him.
First there is Lina, a young Native American woman Jacob brings into his home to help him with the house and farmwork. Lina was the sole survivor of her village's massacre, and then survived the Protestant proselytizing of the stern white folks who first took her in.
Then Jacob buys a bride from England, and Rebekka shows up. She is happy to exchange the squalor of English city life and her valueless place as daughter of the family for the hard work of a New England farm, and the relative autonomy of being a wife. Rebekka and Lina achieve a mutual respect and good working relationship on the farm, but Rebekka's life is scarred by the loss of several children.
Jacob also takes in a young woman named Sorrow, who was raised on a ship and rescued from it when all others aboard had perished. Sorrow is an enigmatic character who seems to live inside her own head and carry untold secrets. Finally, Jacob reluctantly accepts slave girl Florens in payment for a debt from a slave trader.
When Jacob dies of smallpox, the four women's lives become insecure, as women alone in this harsh new world are never fully safe. And when Rebekka sickens with the disease, Florens takes to the road to find help in the form of a free black man, an artisan who worked for Jacob, and who may be able to cure Rebekka. This man also happens to be Florens's lover, and she goes to him with hope in her heart for a new and different life.
Like Beloved, A Mercy examines the psychological and moral intricacies of slavery. While Beloved takes place in the aftermath of slavery, A Mercy is there at slavery's birth in this country. A Mercy's characters demonstrate the more fluid state of slavery at that time, as the novel depicts slave traders, a reluctant slave owner, a free black man, and people of every color in various states of servitude, including a pair of white male indentured servants who almost (but perhaps not quite) provide the novel with comic relief. The subtlety of their relationships is brilliant; nobody is wholly innocent or wholly guilty, power can shift, and all are slaves to something.