Summary and book reviews of The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth Winthrop

The Mercy Seat

by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop X
The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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About this Book

Book Summary

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...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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).

Full Review (412 words).

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Media Reviews

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.

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Beyond the Book

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,...

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