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Review: The Mercy Seat, by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Grove, 2018. 254 pp. $26

When the clock strikes twelve one steamy midnight in 1943, New Iberia, Louisiana, will send one of its sons to the electric chair. Willie Jones, an African-American teenager, has been convicted of raping a white woman. But whether young Willie deserves to die for this crime — or, in some minds, whether there was rape involved — divides this small, rural community to the point of violence.

Replica of the electric chair once used at Louisiana State Penitentiary (courtesy Lee Honeycutt via Wikimedia Commons)

Winthrop’s tale evokes To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, but she follows a very different, necessarily compressed route, for the action takes place entirely within twelve hours. The trial is eight months gone, ancient history, so there’s no Atticus Finch to plead for Willie’s life. Rather, his court-appointed lawyers, who never appear in the narrative, hardly opened their mouths to defend him. There is a child narrator, a sort of moral chorus role, the district attorney’s son, Gabe. But he’s one of nine third-person voices telling the story, seven white and two black. All are sympathetic to Willie, in varying degrees and for very different reasons, yet nearly all believe that there’s absolutely nothing they can do or could have done differently. No matter what their station in life, well off, scraping by, or dirt poor, they have one thing in common — they are terribly lonely, and their feelings about the forthcoming execution, which can’t be easily expressed, show just how isolated they are.

The great genius of The Mercy Seat is how Winthrop extracts almost unbearable tension from voices reacting to events that have been ordained, a Greek tragedy about modest lives. Although she reveals slivers of back story that challenge the reader’s assumptions, information isn’t what propels the narrative with such irresistible force. It’s feeling, pure and simple, rendered in physical description, as with this passage from Gabe’s point of view. This kind of writing takes my breath away:

He looks at his father — the lines bleeding back from the corner of his eyes, the hard bone of his nose, the flat space between his eyes, the quiver of muscle along his jaw as he chews — and for a frightening moment Gabe can’t find in all those features the father he knows. He can’t see the man in the backyard, shirtsleeves rolled up, pitching him a ball, or the man with the fishing rod and tan hat at the edge of the bayou, or the man sitting on the edge of Gabe’s bed at night, reading glasses on the tip of his nose. For a frightening moment, studied hard, his father’s features combine into the face of someone he can’t recognize, someone willing to send a man to death, and he feels himself reel the way he did when he took the slug from the Kane twins’ father’s flask, the world suddenly shot into the distance.

Every character in the novel lives with an urgent question, the necessity for all fiction, and that’s what provides the tension. Gabe’s question is whether he can still love the man who’s prosecuted Willie and sent him to the electric chair. And because the reader cares about both characters, you want to know how that will resolve. The Mercy Seat reminds me that heroism may be measured in small gestures, because there’s no chance of a great one.

The passage above comes from a two-page chapter, an authorial decision that cuts two ways. I don’t know how else Winthrop could have told her story through nine, well-crafted individual voices, especially with such thrift and elegiac power. Nor do I ever feel, as I have with other novels told in brief chapters, that the writer is pandering to readers with short attention spans. Still, the rhythm of rapidly changing perspectives gets to me after a while. I’ve never been much for pointillism, though the way Winthrop has selected her dots accomplishes one thing. Six of the seven white narrators wouldn’t call themselves bigots, and you sense their fear of the bitter, violent men who are.

With one significant exception, The Mercy Seat re-creates the time and place in ugly, frightening detail, down to the eagerness of the citizenry to witness the execution or listen to it on the radio (!). But World War II is hardly to be seen, except to provide an emotional transition for two characters. There’s little mention of rationing, though a bakery figures in the action, and there seem to be an awful lot of military-age civilians around.

But that’s a quibble. The Mercy Seat — which takes its title from a blues song about the electric chair — is easily one of the most powerful novels I’ve read this year. And I’m sick at heart to think of how the senseless hatred that condemns Willie Jones remains powerful enough in our country that politicians can appeal to it and hold public office.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.