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KPCW invites members of the Friends of the Park City and Summit County libraries to review novels and non-fiction every month.

August Book Review: 'The Mercies' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Little, Brown and Company

Great historical fiction combines engrossing entertainment with fresh details of places, times, and people different from our own. The best historical fiction does that and makes it relevant and meaningful today.


How do people in power use their office to control citizens? Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s historical fiction of Norway four hundred years ago feels surprisingly timely.


In 1617, a freak storm killed virtually all the men on a tiny fishing island off the northern coast of Norway, leaving only very young boys and men too old to fish. At that time, King Christian fell under the witch-hunting mania then rampant in Europe, the UK and the American colonies. In her first adult novel, Hargrave explores the aftermath of that storm and the witch-hunt that ensued.


The Mercies is rich in the fine-grain detail of life in 1617 both in a remote island at the Arctic Circle and in the bustling Norwegian town of Bergen. Maren Bergensdatter was raised on Vardo and lost her father, her brother and her fiancé to the freak storm. Her daily struggle to survive was a challenge even before the island lost virtually all its men. At a time when women were forbidden to take the boats out, the tiny population was at risk of starvation. 


Ursa Cornett was raised in Bergen by an aristocratic sea merchant. She comes of age just as the family finances are declining and is married off to an up and coming church leader on his way to Vardo to take control of the village and root out witchcraft on behalf of King Christian.


When Ursa’s new husband begins his search for witchcraft among the Vardo women, the events grow darker and much more disturbing. He begins a list of anyone on the island who fails to attend church. He divides the tiny, struggling population by encouraging them to spy on each other, reporting to him any evidence of non-Christian worship, no matter how benign. The story is unblinking in recounting the cruelty imposed on the island’s women. The special hell reserved for the ethnic Laplanders is particularly cruel. Those accused of witchcraft face judge, jury, and executioner in one man. The only opportunity to show innocence is by sinking when thrown in the Arctic Sea.


The Mercies, by Kiran Hargrave, is an engaging story from history that will resonate with today’s headlines about the abuse of authority in the pursuit of control. The Mercies is available at your local libraries today.

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