Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mercy Seat

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Grove Atlantic: 5/8/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802128188

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop is a very highly recommended historical fiction drama set in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era.

Set in 1943, The Mercy Seat follows the day of the midnight execution of Will Jones. Will has been convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman.  Winthrop follows multiple characters through the day and evening leading up to Will's execution. The third person accounts are told in short, dynamic chapters that rotate between all of their points-of-view and create a fully realized picture of the events leading up to Will's execution and this day.

Driving the electric chair across the state is Lane, a prison trustee who was convicted of murder, and Captain Seward, the loathsome prison guard who drinks steadily during the drive. Ora and Dale, who live by their gas station located at the cross roads, are struggling with secrets and grief. Father Hannigan struggles with his failing faith while trying to offer some comfort to Will. District Attorney Polly Livingstone, regrets his role in Will's conviction, but there were mitigating circumstances that only a few know about. Polly's wife, Nell, is determined to do something for Will. Polly and Nell's son, Gabe, wants to witness the execution. Eighteen-year-old Will sits in a cell in New Iberia awaiting his end, while only finding solace in thinking of Grace, the white girl he loved who killed herself after his arrest. And Frank, Will's father, is stuck at the side of a road trying to bring a headstone back for his son's grave, but his mule is too old to finish the job

All of the characters are complicated individuals with their own questions, convictions, and insecurities. Winthrop does an excellent job capturing the voices of her various characters to weave together a complete, heartbreaking, poignant and powerful story. Since all the characters are unique individuals with distinctive voices, it is clear what chapter is from which specific character's perspective. You will have to accept at the beginning, though, that you will be cycling through the various characters' voices in each subsequent chapter. It is not an arduous task, but you may find yourself thinking, "No! I want more of____!"

This is a finely crafted emotionally complex historical fiction novel about racism, injustice, and brutality and a gripping portrait of the Jim Crow South. It begs us to question what we accept as just and what we do when faced with the unjust. It is also a novel of fathers and sons, of loss and pain, of the inability to control events beyond your power. It is a painful novel to read, but it is also a powerful novel. Winthrop has presented a perfectly realized novel and portrait of injustice time in the historic South.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

No comments: