THE MERCY SEAT by Elizabeth H. Winthrop


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The imminent execution of a black man shows the level of injustice a town’s white residents are willing to endure in this historical novel inspired by real events.

Eighteen-year-old Willie Jones sits in a Louisiana jail cell in 1943 awaiting his final punishment, death, for raping a white woman, though the reader learns that the two were involved in a romantic relationship and Willie was arrested after her father discovered them together. The story unfolds as the electric chair makes its way to New Iberia, where Willie and those who wish to see him dead await. Winthrop (The Why of Things, 2013, etc.) deploys the perspectives of several characters—some more directly involved in Willie’s fate than others—creating a narrative that causes readers to confront the difference between what is legal and what is just. Power and agency are the sole province of white men, and heavy is the burden—for at least one character. Polly Livingstone, the lawyer who prosecuted Willie but is unsure of his guilt, spends much time agonizing over his role in the process. And Winthrop provides nice nuance by showing that Polly’s decision to follow Southern custom by ensuring that a black man suspected of being involved with a white woman is put to death was more complicated than readers might have assumed. Meanwhile, those who care the most about Willie are those who can do the least for him, including Polly’s wife, Nell; the town priest, Father Hannigan; and most notably Ora, the wife of the local gas station operator, whose motives are not entirely clear. Winthrop writes most tenderly of Willie’s father, Frank, who is trying to ensure that his son has a proper headstone, a task he’s understandably avoided. Unfortunately, Frank’s role, and those of the other black characters, is marginal, as the book is more dedicated to exposing how the whites who are sympathetic to what Willie represents inevitably fail him. Winthrop does so by invoking those all-too-familiar tropes of Southern literature—the ridiculously hot day; the white bystanders in front of the courthouse; and the Northerner who cannot jibe with those curious Southerners and their ways.

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

Pub Date: May 8th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2818-8
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2018


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