The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Mercy Seat
The Mercy Seat
by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

Paperback (16 Apr 2019), 272 pages.
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN-13: 9780802129611
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An incisive, meticulously crafted portrait of race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South that is as intimate and tense as a stage drama, The Mercy Seat is a stunning account of one town's foundering over a trauma in their midst.

On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. Across the state, a truck driven by a convict and his keeper carries the executioner's chair closer. On a nearby highway, Willie's father Frank lugs a gravestone on the back of his fading, old mule. In his office the DA who prosecuted Willie reckons with his sentencing, while at their gas station at the crossroads outside of town, married couple Ora and Dale grapple with their grief and their secrets.

As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie's execution means, an intricately layered and complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges. Moving from voice to voice, Winthrop elegantly brings to stark light the story of a town, its people, and its injustices. The Mercy Seat is a brutally incisive and tender novel from one of our most acute literary observers.

Lane

When Lane comes out of the gas station store, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue stiff between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridgeback–pit bull mix, all sinewy muscle and worried brow, like the one he'd had as a kid until his father one day shot her in the cane fields out back, damned if he'd shelter a dog who, during domestic contests, favored the woman of the house. The dog hadn't died right away; Lane had fixed her up as best he could and made her a bed out in the woodshed, where he'd brought her food and water and tended to her wound until she'd disappeared a few days later, likely wandered off to die.

The dog rises nimbly from the dust and turns a circle, follows behind as Lane makes his way to the truck, which is parked in the only shade, beneath a tree. Lane stops and turns. He looks at the dog, then back at the store, a squat, white cinder block structure baking in the crossroads' heat. The battered window shades inside are drawn against the late afternoon sun, and the chipped letters of the TEXACO logo painted on the glass repeat themselves in shadow on the ripped canvas beneath. Lane wonders if the dog is a stray or if it belongs to the people here, to the black-haired woman behind the counter who'd wordlessly taken his money, to the rolled up around grease-stained arms. The woman's husband, Lane would guess; he'd seen living quarters through the door behind the counter, smelled stewing meat.

Lane clears his throat. "He y'all's?" he calls.

The man spits as he crosses to the pump, where a car is waiting for service, shakes his head no.

Lane tosses the dog a piece of the jerky he bought with the coins Captain Seward allowed him and continues to the truck, a bright red 1941 International Harvester cornbinder. Everything about it seems to Lane round in some way: fat round wheel fenders, round hood, round taillights and headlights, as if the whole thing were surprised. And maybe it would be, if it knew what was inside the sheet-metal trailer mounted to its bed. Lane had seen them load it up back at Angola, the straight-backed wooden chair that would have looked innocuous enough but for the leather straps along the arms and the wooden rail between its two front legs. He'd been confounded by the sight; he'd expected some kind of metal contraption with wires and knobs attached. The fact that the chair looks frankly like a chair is troubling to Lane; he finds something deeply sinister in its simplicity.

He opens the truck door and climbs in behind the wheel.

Seward is in the passenger seat, an unlit cigar between his puffy lips. He's a big, chinless man, with a neck so thick his head seems less to sit upon than grow out of it, like a parakeet's.

Seward glances at Lane across the gear shift. "Thought you might have made a run for it," he says. The cigar waggles between his lips as he speaks.

Lane looks at the empty fields around them, the intersecting gravel roads that stretch flatly away: east, west, north, south, anywhere. "Nowhere to go."

Seward gestures at the bag of jerky. "Satisfied?"

Lane offers Seward a piece of the dried meat in reply.

The fat man pinches the cigar from his mouth and exhales as if he's taken a drag. "Too damn hot to eat," he says, but he takes the jerky from Lane anyway, rips a bite off with his side teeth.

It is too hot to eat, a merciless Indian summer, but when they'd stopped so Seward could stretch his bad leg Lane claimed hunger all the same, just as he claimed a need for the facilities when they passed the station before this one. Six years he's been inside, dreamed of things like jerky, M&M's, porcelain underneath his thighs. Now, a prison trusty, he is out, chauffeur to Seward and his chair, and he wants his jerky while he can have it. Wants to want it; its terms make this taste of freedom bittersweet. "Never too hot for jerky when all you've ate for years is gruel," Lane says, though the piece he takes for himself he only plays with, twisting the hardened meat between his fingers. Finally he tosses it in the direction of the dog, who sits by the truck's open door. "Reminds me of the one I had when I was a kid," he says.

Full Excerpt

The Mercy Seat © 2018 by Elizabeth H. Winthrop. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

A multi-point of view story of the hours leading up to the execution of a young black man in the Jim Crow South.

Print Article

Willie Jones, an eighteen-year old black teenager, has been found guilty of the rape of a white woman Grace and sentenced to death at midnight by electric chair. For the small communities of St. Martinville and New Iberia in Louisiana in October 1943, this is a significant event–a cause for celebration for some, but disturbing and concerning to others. The Mercy Seat is the story of this day.

Winthrop narrates the story of Willie and the community from a multitude of points of view. There is Willie, patiently waiting for his appointment with death and his father, Frank, trying to see his son one last time. There is the local prosecutor, Polly Livingstone, whose son, Gabe, and wife, Nell, question his decision to ask for the death penalty for Willie. After all, it is rumored that Willie and Grace were in love.

There is also a young white man called Lane, responsible for delivering the electric chair to New Iberia despite the fact that he is serving out his sentence as a convicted murderer. Lane is out of prison for this one day only as he is to drive the truck and assist his guard, Captain Seward, who will carry out the execution.

Portraying the Jim Crow South can be tricky, and many pitfalls await a writer taking on such a diverse cast of characters – black and white, male and female, young and old, human, imperfect. But Winthrop handles every challenge. Each character is well-realized, rounded and believable. Their emotions fill the pages and as their stories intersect and the hours creep by, bringing the moment of execution closer, secrets are revealed. Polly's teenage son Gabe decides to sneak out to see the execution for himself. Seward drinks so many whiskies he might not be able to manage the execution. Frank needs urgent help if he is to reach New Iberia in time. And Willie waits for midnight. The novel has a lyrical quality. The tone is slow and warm, like the Indian summer day in the story, but the tension ratchets up very effectively.

This is a novel where contrast and parallels are important: the treatment of animals versus the treatment of children and the criminal justice system's different sentencing of Willie and of Lane, are just two examples. The Mercy Seat is a tense and haunting novel that doesn't shy away from darkness but remains hopeful, even beautiful, and painfully moving as all the various narratives wrap up in a powerful conclusion.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

Kirkus Reviews
Though ambitious in its goals, the book stumbles, causing Willie and his family to suffer more than they already have.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A staggering multivoiced novel ... Winthrop's survey of these divergent lives compounds their individual pain into a withering critique of a cancerous society. This potent novel about prejudice and the constraints of challenging the status quo will move and captivate readers.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Based on true events and opening with lyrics from Nick Cave's 1988 song Mercy Seat, award-winning Winthrop's engrossing story unfolds through strong memorable characters. A remarkable work with a stunning unexpected conclusion, not to be missed.

Booklist
Starred Review. The lives of these characters mesh in the events surrounding the execution, and their points of view cycle through short chapters that build tension as midnight draws near. Winthrop's carefully structured novel is a nuanced, absorbing, atmospheric examination of how racism tears at the whole of society.

Print Article

The Mercy Seat: Historical Background

The Mercy Seat is inspired by true events. In the acknowledgements, the author, Elizabeth H. Winthrop, says that the character Willie Jones is based loosely on two men: Willie McGee and Willie Francis.

Willie McGee, a young black man, was arrested in 1945 in Laurel, Mississippi when a white woman accused him of breaking into her house and raping her at knife-point. Although no white man had ever been given the death sentence for rape in Mississippi, McGee, after a trial that only lasted half a day and jury deliberations of less than five minutes, was found guilty and sentenced to death. Not everyone believed he had committed the crime. Despite suggestions that the sex was consensual and a vigorous campaign to assert McGee's civil rights, he was electrocuted in May 1951.

Willie Francis was just sixteen when he was sentenced to death for the murder of a local pharmacist in St. Martinville, Louisiana. The black teenager's execution by electric chair was scheduled for May 3, 1946. The current was switched on but Francis did not die and it was later determined that a drunken guard and inmate had wrongly wired the chair six months earlier. Although support grew to take another look at Francis's case, the death sentence was eventually confirmed by the Supreme Court and Willie was electrocuted just over a year after his original date.

Gruesome Gertie The Mercy Seat describes Louisiana's electric chair known as Gruesome Gertie, in close detail. Eighty-seven convicts were electrocuted in Gruesome Gertie until 1991, when Louisiana switched to using lethal injection. Today, the chair is on display in the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum in Angola.

Throughout The Mercy Seat, Winthrop does not shy away from the realities of segregation and racism during the Jim Crow era in America. The prosecutor, Polly Livingstone, for example, hopes that the country has made progress during his lifetime and keeps a postcard from a lynching his father took him to as a boy. Postcards of lynchings were so commonly sold and sent at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Postmaster General banned the cards in 1908. Polly remembers buying the postcard at a gas station and "wonders which is worse, to be lynched or to be shocked to death in an electric chair. There was a time when he was sure there was a difference, but now that he's had a hand in it, he wonders if it really matters in the end what kind of justice it is – mob or legal – when the end result is death."

By Kate Braithwaite

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