In the late 17th century, slavery was in its infancy, as was the sugarcane industry. Morrison’s prose is confident and secure, her language masterful. She describes the natural surroundings of the isolated homestead to which the young girl Florens is taken in lyrical terms (sky “the color of currants,” “leaves that make blood and brass”). The story is told through interweaving strands of narrative by four women— Rebekka, Lina, Sorrow, and Florens—all in some way bonded to Jacob Vaark, a Dutch farmer and small-scale financier and trader. Having arrived from Europe to marry Jacob, Rebekka helplessly watches her babies perish one after the other. Even her surviving six-year-old daughter is killed in an accident, and Jacob himself later dies of smallpox. Florens, an Angolan slave child, is in some way supposed to replace that lost daughter.
The other women on the farm—Lina, a Native American woman, and Sorrow, a wild orphan—are used by Morrison to create a “Rashomon effect.” Florens struggles to understand why she was abandoned by her Angolan slave mother and “sold” to Jacob Vaark to repay a debt owed to him; she is mothered by Lina, who is unable to stop her falling in love with a travelling blacksmith, a free black, a situation still possible at the time. When Rebekka catches the dreaded pox, Florens travels north to look for this man in the hope that he can cure her mistress, but the journey changes her forever—or perhaps she is merely a pawn in the relentless spread of slavery accompanied by religious and racial intolerance and fear.
The pace of the story quickens as the effects of Vaark’s death on these four women become clear. This is another penetrating and profoundly disquieting view of America’s past, highlighting Morrison’s quest to bear witness to these events.