If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records. Hargrave, the author of several award-winning children’s novels, shifts to adult fiction with The Mercies, a vivid and immersive depiction of a remote village on Norway’s northeast coast in the early 1600s—and how it was dramatically transformed, first by a violent storm, then by religious extremism.
On Christmas Eve, 1617, a swift, devastating storm strikes the harbor at Vardo, sinking 10 fishing boats and drowning 40 men—the town’s entire male population. Maren Magnusdatter, age 20, sees the storm from the shore and loses, like so many others, her father, brother and husband-to-be. Over the next several months, she and all the women of Vardo realize they will starve if they don’t join together and resume the strenuous fishing once carried out by their town’s men.
Hargrave skillfully portrays how lines of allegiance are drawn as a handful of women emerge as potential leaders. Some, known for their ardent church attendance, are backed by the local pastor. Others gradually gain their independence by ignoring some of the church’s edicts. Maren is tied to this latter group, mostly because her dead brother’s wife is from a Sami family, a group labeled as heretics and shunned by other townsfolk.
Hargrave’s novel quickly morphs from a portrait of the harsh life in a remote, early 17th-century village to a tale of religious persecution against a growing core of independent women. When a new commissioner arrives—recruited from Scotland, where he has already participated in witch trials—women previously passive in their beliefs quickly stand up as accusers, with dramatic results. Caught in the middle are Maren and the commissioner’s young wife, Ursa, who becomes Maren’s friend and ally.
The Mercies is an exceptional work of historical fiction with a dramatic setting and perceptive insight into the rippling effects of extremism, as seen through the eyes of a carefully crafted cast of characters.