Kiran Millwood Hargrave crafts a story of community and strength in her historical fiction novel, The Mercies. Set in a remote Norwegian coastal village called Vardø in 1617, the story centers on two women. Maren Bergensdatter is barely out of her teens when a terrible storm kills both her father and brother at sea. In addition, 38 other men are also killed by the storm. The women of the village suddenly must fend entirely for themselves.
They learn to survive, going fishing, slaughtering animals, and creating an even more tight knit community. But tensions arise in the village because some women believe that others approach their masculine style tasks with too much fervor. One woman wears trousers. Gasp. Another is from the Sámi indigenous people of area (called Lapps or Laplanders by the English). Her beliefs conflict with that of the others.
Finally the King sends two men—a pastor and a Commissioner—to take charge. Thus, the women must reconfigure themselves and accommodate this renewed male influence. The Commissioner is a Scotsman named Absalom Cornet. Hoping it will endear him to the village, Cornet marries a Norwegian wife, young Ursa from the city of Bergen.
Ursa is truly a fish out of water in the village. Life is quite primitive in Vardø, and she isn’t used to keeping her own house or dealing with the extreme weather conditions. So Maren starts teaching Ursa the necessary skills, and the two strike up a friendship.
Between the self-sufficiency, the Sámi traditions, and the young women’s burgeoning friendship, Cornet is scandalized. His suspicious nature and past work in Scotland mean the village women are at risk.
Hargrave perfectly combines the historical aspects of 17th century Norwegian life with the religious and societal oppression of women. She details many aspects of village life, including both the traditionally feminine and masculine tasks.
At the same time, we learn about the role of church and religion in daily life. The women gather often for services, with their unassuming male pastor. But Cornet takes this devotion to another level, interrogating each woman to discover any supposed abnormalities of behavior. The more he questions them, the more concerned he becomes.
So, as Hargrave builds the case for Cornet, she also encourages readers to connect to the women. Ursa is innocent and uncomfortable in her new surroundings. Maren is still recovering from the trauma of loss, but she knows her mother, sister-in-law, and infant nephew depend on her. We get to know other town women primarily through their eyes.
Hargrave develops some nuance to the relationship between Maren and Ursa. On the other hand, everything Commissioner Cornet does is bombastic and misogynistic. Ultimately, the story progression isn’t a surprise. But that doesn’t take away from the drama Hargrave creates within the plot.
I recommend The Mercies if you’re curious about long-ago coastal Norwegian life. If you love stories with shades of feminism in a time when such behavior was vilified, you will appreciate this one.
For me, this was a perfect pairing progression with Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian, The Real Valkyries: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women by Nancy Marie Brown, and The Midwife’s Revolt by Jodi Daynard. All of these books explore different aspects of independent women’s lives in past centuries.