Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE MERCY SEAT by Rilla Askew

THE MERCY SEAT

By Rilla Askew

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-670-87467-1
Publisher: Viking

 Oklahoma native Askew follows the spare, haunting stories of her debut collection, Strange Business (1992), with a wrenching Cain-and-Abel first novel set in a vividly realized 19th-century American West. In 1886, brothers John and (La) Fayette ``Fate'' Lodi make a hurried move from their Kentucky homeland to the promise of new land and a new start in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Their story is initially narrated by John's ten-year-old daughter Mattie, who knows it is her uncle's dishonest dealings that have forced their move, and also intuits ``the brotherness that would not let them love one another nor unbind themselves.'' This troubled union dominates the rest of their days and precipitates the violent climax toward which the novel inexorably moves. Askew shifts adroitly among Mattie's narration, the ``testimony'' of other family and neighbors, and an omniscient over-voice (reminiscent of that in Faulkner's novels) that effectively summarizes and interprets actions that their participants only partially understand. The hardships endured during the Lodis' journey westward establish the pattern for a succession of beautifully developed extended scenes, including the wasting away and sudden death (from homesickness and heartbreak) of Mattie's mother, Mattie's own exhausted efforts to mother her younger siblings (most strikingly, her confrontation with a black wet-nurse she accuses of ``witching'' her baby sister), her ``spells'' and their relation to Mattie's belief in the world of spirits, and the climactic action that separates and will eventually, ironically, reunite the troubled brothers. Askew excels at indirect characterization: Her portrayals (entirely through others' eyes) of John Lodi's patient, stoical forbearance (he's a skilled gunsmith, who turns his weapons, as it were, into ploughshares) and his brother Fate's mean, shifty criminality are marvelously concise yet full-blooded. And Mattie is simply one of the most engaging and heartbreaking characters in contemporary fiction. Reminiscent of the work of Elizabeth Madox Roberts and perhaps Wright Morris's Plains Song. A magnificent debut novel. (Author tour)