The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Everyone can agree that the storm came from no where. On Christmas Eve, 1617, just as the men of Vardø, in Norway’s extreme north, were setting out to begin the day’s fishing, a terrible storm appeared and drowned them all. The women, children, and a few old men, are left to fend for themselves in the aftermath. The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is set in the years that follow the storm, as paranoia and racism conspire to kick off the deadliest wave of witch-hunting Norway ever experienced.

Maren Magnusdatter, one of two narrators of The Mercies, offers an insider’s view of life in Vardø. The village is poor, but it is an important outpost for whaling and fishing and keeping an eye on the Russian Empire. After the 1617 storm, a village of women has to wrestle with their grief at the same time that they have to learn how to fish (purely a man’s job) before they starve. Some of the women of Vardø grow more independent. Kirsten Sørensdatter, for one, seems to relish the freedom and space that allows her to be a leader. Others, like Toril and Sigfrid, turn to the church and begin to believe that the devil and witches and especially the local Sámi people are to blame for the loss of the men. Maren is torn between the two groups. On the one hand, Kirsten’s practicality keeps the lot of them from starving and gives them a direction. On the other, Maren’s mother sides with the women who mutter about witches.

Ursula Cornet, our other narrator, is an outsider. She is the daughter of a formerly wealthy shipowner in Bergen, who suddenly finds herself married to a Scotsman who is on his way to Vardø to work for the local governor. It’s only much later that Ursula learns, to her horror, that her husband has been hired as a witchfinder. He’s been summoned because of his expertise at torturing confessions out of women who’ve been accused of being witches. While Maren’s perspective shows us a village tearing itself apart, Ursula’s view provides context for what’s happening in the somewhat wider world. Unfortunately, both seem equally powerless to stop what’s happening.

The Mercies is a highly atmospheric novel. As I read it, I felt the cold and almost smelled the heather, damp, and unwashed clothing of Vardø. This is a big part of why I seek out novels set in places and times I haven’t read about yet. I want a small walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how bleak it is. This novel is also the first time I’ve been able to read more, in fiction, about the Finnmark witch trials, which I’ve only heard about in passing until I listened to a recent episode of The Dollop, one of my favorite irreverent history podcasts. Having listened to that episode, I knew that Maren and Ursula were about to witness something terrible. I felt dread for most of the book, just waiting for the hammer to fall. What I didn’t know before reading The Mercies was that the Sámi were one of the chief targets of the witch trials and of assimilationist policies that strongly resembled the way that Americans suppressed the culture and traditional life of indigenous people in the United States.

I can strongly recommend The Mercies for readers who seek well-told stories about darker periods in history, in places that rarely feature in fiction. This novel has a lot to say about how grief can turn to anger and fear, conflicts in border spaces, colonialism, and how hard life can be on the edge of the known world.

Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Finnmark, Norway (Image by Bjarne Riesto, via Wikicommons)

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