Planet Books


The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H Winthrop



Set in 1943 in a small isolated town in Louisiana, The Mercy Seat offers an unflinching portrayal of the Jim Crow era in all its ugly brutality.

While the world is at war, New Iberia has its own battles and each page reveals the extent to which the town seethes with cruelty, bigotry and violence. The impending execution by electrocution of Will Jones, a black teenager wrongfully accused of raping a white girl, is the catalyst for this story.

As midnight approaches and the ‘mercy seat’ makes its way southwards to New Iberia where Will awaits the death penalty, we are offered the perspective of the characters who are touched by his fate, some more closely and directly than others. This cast of disparate narrative voices has the potential to become confusing, but Winthrop manages her characters deftly and the disjunctive narrative becomes emblematic of the conflict and issues that are rife in this town.

Winthrop successfully incorporates many elements of the Southern Gothic genre here, particularly in her masterful evocation of moral decay. This is definitely an old Southern town whose manners have soured. The heat is oppressive and almost tangible, adding to the dark undercurrent of tension that pervades the narrative.

Some of the inhabitants are undoubtedly good and their small acts of kindness are beautiful (Nell, the wife of the DA who cooks the sentenced Will his last meal; Frank, the boy’s father, who struggles with an old mule to haul a headstone to mark his son’s grave ...) but a number are also decidedly grotesque and there are frequent chilling reminders that this is Klan territory.

In the midst of this deeply dark and troubling story, it is ironically Will’s voice that rings out pure and true, and as the hour of his death approaches, he seems reconciled to his fate, accepting that he will die with both incredible grace and courage.

It is the people who orbit him, caught up in their own lives, that seem more deeply affected by the midnight execution. Some of them represent the worst of human nature in their blind hatred and thirst for vengeance; others, like the young boy, Gabe, who defends an old man against members of the KKK and the preacher who frequently visits Will, demonstrate that humanity can also be beautiful as they rail against the injustices dealt out by a corrupt and intolerant society. That the events of the novel are inspired by history makes the story even more gut-wrenching.

This is a moving and potent novel which will remain with me for a long time. Highly recommended.




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