The fact that this is a true story makes this incredible novel even more compelling. Historically, what happened on Christmas Eve 1617, when a sudden massive storm erupted over the remote Norwegian Island of Vardo was the beginning of a tale so extraordinary that it seems like a myth, a fable. Not so. It’s real. On Christmas Eve, while the island women prepared their houses to celebrate the sacred feast, all the men on Vardo were out at sea in their fishing boats. Every single one of them perished in the storm, leaving a settlement of only women and small children. Despite their shock and grief, the women were determined to survive. Together they herded reindeer, rescued and salvaged their husbands’ boats, and went to sea; they took on all their dead men’s jobs, and they survived. But these were times when women were not supposed to be independent, and the women soon attracted the attention of Christian zealots, men who called them witches, and were determined to destroy them.
In 1618 King Christian of Norway introduced laws against witchcraft, modelled on the harsh rules of Scotland’s James VI. Christian brought a Scottish witch Hunter to Norway to help him, and in The Mercies this is John Cornet, who was horrified to find the widows of Vardo wearing men’s clothes to do their dead husbands’s work. He denounced them as witches; and many were tried and burned at the stake.
That’s the true historical background of this wonderful novel. But it is also a strongly emotional tale of love, brutality, terror and romance. The Mercies is about the way in which pious men feared and hated strong, independent women, and used the Christian faith to denounce them as possessed by the devil. But it’s also about stunning landscapes, fascinating characters and is, simply a wonderful story. We both loved it.