A freakish storm kicks up one day in 1617 and drowns all the men on the island of Vardø who are out fishing. Only young boys and old men are left. There is no one to help the women, so they have to learn to fend for themselves, including fishing, which is considered unwomanly. Maren’s fiancé and her father and brother are all gone, so she must try to take care of her mother, her brother’s Sámi wife Diina, and her little baby nephew.
In Bergen, Ursa’s father has made one poor decision after another since her mother died, leaving the family relatively poor. She is happy taking care of her invalid sister, but soon she learns her father has betrothed her to Absolom Cornet, a Scot he hardly knows, who has been appointed the Commissioner of Vardøhus, the rarely occupied fort on Vardø. Her father thinks he has done well for her, but they have no idea that Cornet is being sent to root out witchcraft.
Ursa is taken aback at the primitive conditions she finds in Vardø, in remote Finnmark, and she knows nothing about keeping house. When Maren brings her some skins the villagers have prepared to keep the cold from coming up from the floor, Ursa asks her to teach her how to take care of the house and cook. Thus begins a deep friendship.
But Ursa’s husband has already begun looking for witches. The first names that come up from a vicious bunch of pious women are Maren’s Sámi sister-in-law, an older woman whose large house is a target of envy, and Maren’s bold and unconventional friend Kirsten.
The Mercies is a deeply involving fictionalization of true events in early 17th century Norway. Seldom have I felt such a growing feeling of dread as when I read this novel. It is truly gripping. It seems well researched and has believable characters.