Martin's Must Reads: 'The Mercies'

Jan 26, 2021

“On 24 December 1617, just off the coast of the island of Vardo, Norway’s north-easternmost point, a storm lifted so suddenly eyewitnesses said it was as if it were conjured. In a matter of minutes, forty men were drowned.”

I’m Betty Martin with "Martin’s Must Reads" and that’s the historic event that inspired Kieran Millwood Hargrove’s novel The Mercies. With only a few old men and young boys left in the village after the storm, it falls to the women to figure out how to survive the long cold winters. Several of them take on fishing, one of their most important food sources.

One woman, Kirsten, takes on the care and slaughtering of the elk herd so the village can have meat and furs, their only means of keeping warm. But Denmark-Norway King Christian IV, desperate to make his mark on the world has decided to rid the world of evil forces, particularly anyone suspected of being a witch. The Sami, an indigenous population who use runes and spirit-talk, refuse to obey King Christian’s religious reforms and are, therefore, targeted on the witch hunts as is any woman who behaves in ways unbecoming of a  17th century female.

The king sends Commissioner Absalom Cornet to route out the possessed. On his way from Scotland he stops in Bergen to obtain a wife, Ursa. As the daughter of a shipbuilder and accustomed to living a privileged life she is unprepared for the hard life awaiting her in Vardo.  What Ursa doesn’t understand until too late is just how her husband intends to fulfill his duties.

If you're looking for a story that accurately portrays the harsh life of the 17th century then you must read The Mercies by Kieran Millwood Hargrave.