This New Title Tuesday recommendation, The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop is a slow, simmering narrative that explores the tight grip of local corruption and systemic racism in a depression era small town in Jim Crow Louisiana.
Publisher’s Summary: “One of the finest writers of her generation” (Brad Watson), and author of three previously acclaimed novels, Elizabeth H. Winthrop delivers a brave new book that will launch her distinguished career anew. 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.
Elizabeth H. Winthrop is the recipient of the Schaeffer Writing Fellowship at the University of California at Irvine where she earned her MFA. She lives with her husband and daughter in Massachusetts, where she is Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Endicott College.
The Mercy Seat takes place in a single day and Winthrop kept a forward momentum through incremental snatches of the inner lives of the various characters – each of whom is complex and sympathetic even though flawed.
In addition, Winthrop’s prose is both spare and intricate as in this opening scene from the point of view of a prisoner outside the walls of Angola who is driving the truck with the electric chair and its keeper:
When Lane comes out of the gas station, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue still between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridge-back 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.
I’m in agreement with Gabrielle Williams who reviewed The Mercy Seat for Readings: “I expect this book will be romping onto all the prize lists this year. It’s absolutely magnificent. And the depth of humanity that Elizabeth H. Winthrop has created out of such a ghastly scenario is evidence of a truly masterful writer.”
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Winthrop:
The Why of Things – Since the tragic loss of her seventeen-year-old daughter less than a year ago, Joan Jacobs has been working hard to keep her tight-knit family from coming apart. But it seems as if she and Anders, her husband, have lost their easy comfort with each other and are unable to snap back from their isolation into the familiarity and warmth they so desperately need, both for themselves and for their surviving daughters, Eve and Eloise. The Jacobses flee to their summer home in search of peace and renewal, but moments after they arrive, the family is confronted with an eerily similar tragedy: that same evening a pickup truck had driven into the quarry in their backyard. Within hours, the local police drag up the body of a young man, James Favazza. As the Jacobs family learns more about the inexplicable events that led up to that fateful June evening, each of them becomes increasingly tangled in the emotional threads of Jame’s life and death: fifteen-year-old Eve grows obsessed with proving that Jame’s death wasn’t an accident, though the police refuse to consider this; Anders finds himself forced to face his own deepest fears; and seven-year-old Eloise unwittingly adopts Jame’s orphaned dog. Joan herself becomes increasingly fixated on Jame’s mother, a stranger whose sudden loss so closely mirrors her own.
December – Centered on a young girl who inexplicably stops speaking, December is a riveting and insightful portrait of a family in crisis.Nine months after eleven-year-old Isabelle suddenly fell silent, her parents, Wilson and Ruth, are at their wits’ end. And what began as self-protection has spiraled beyond Isabelle’s control; she has become trapped in her silence, horrified by the pain she is causing and terrified of losing her old self to this cold young girl she barely recognizes. Isabelle must confront her overwhelming anger and love for her family, a cast of charming yet dangerous characters, and her own fears, before finally finding her voice.
Fireworks – Hollis Clayton is in trouble. His wife has decamped for the summer, leaving him to pursue his increasingly overwhelming compulsions: drinking; spying on neighbors; worrying about the fate of an abducted local girl; avoiding his editor, who is on the verge of rejecting his new collection of stories; and confronting as obliquely as possible the recent death of his young son. Meanwhile, he is spending more time with Jack Daniels and a stubbornly persistent stray dog than with anyone else, including his girlfriend Marissa, who has either abandoned him or been abandoned by him, he’s not sure which. A tender and comic portrait of suburban despair, Fireworks details the events of one strange summer in which a man’s troubled soul hangs in the balance. In her perceptive exploration of Hollis’s disintegrating life, Elizabeth Winthrop gives us an unforgettably powerful portrait of an anguished man, one who is both endearingly flawed and vividly real.