Book Review: The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

Title: The Mercy Seat

Author: Elizabeth H Winthrop
Publisher: Sceptre Books
Publication Date: 8 May 2018 (ebook), 14 June 2018 (hardcover), 7 February 2019 (paperback)


As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband.

In this exceptionally powerful novel, Elizabeth Winthrop explores matters of justice, racism and the death penalty in a fresh subtle and profoundly affecting way. Her Kaleidoscopic narrative allows us to inhabit the lives of her characters and see them for what they are – complex individuals, making fateful choices we might not condone, but can understand. 

First, thank you to Sceptre Books for providing me with a copy of The Mercy Seat for review.

The Mercy Seat is the fourth novel from Elizabeth Winthrop, telling of the hours leading up to the midnight execution of Willie Jones, a young black man accused of raping a white girl who subsequently took her own life.

Set in Louisiana, USA in 1945, the author brings the story to life through her descriptions of the oppressive heat, dusty roads and the fields of cotton. This was a time and a place where prejudices still ran deep and where segregation remained the norm.

The story is unusual in that it is told from the point of view of nine (!) different characters. I thought this worked exceptionally well, as the multiple voices show the reader how the execution is affecting so many people within the small community.  I would have liked there to be a couple more African-American narrators, as it would have been interesting to have seen the events unfolding through their eyes.
It is heartbreaking to realise that one of the narrators is Willie Jones’ elderly father, Frank. He has accepted that his boy is going to die at midnight and he is struggling to get to the jail to see Willie for one last time before he dies. His cart, pulled by a clapped out old horse, carries a headstone for Willie because he believes that his son deserves that sign of respect. There was one particular point in Frank’s journey that had me in floods of tears. I really was truly heartbroken by this character’s story and by his quiet strength and his obvious love for his son.

I undertook some research into the use of the electric chair in 1945 and came across the case of Willie Francis, a 16 year old black boy who was convicted of the murder of a pharmacy owner whom he had once worked for. His story has definite parallels to that of Willie Jones and it made the tale all the more real and shocking for me, to realise that someone actually lived through a very similar turn of events.  I must admit to knowing very little about this point in US history and yet I get the feeling that this is a very well-researched book. It certainly makes me keen to read more about this era.

One of the darker points for me was how people seemed to revel in Willie’s approaching death –  from the guardian of the electric chair to the baying crowds forming around the local jail where Willie is being kept – the execution is viewed akin to a sports event or a tourist attraction.  For the family being left behind, knowing that your loved one’s life is about to be cut short is bad enough, but how awful to be met with a crowd of bloodthirsty bigots and curious ‘rubber-neckers’.  
The story is told over a large number of small sections/chapters, each labelled with a character’s name (important when there are nine different narrators to get confused over!).  This was somewhat risky on the author’s part as jumping quickly from character to character could have caused any suspense and tension to dispel, however it actually worked very well and the different voices seem to drive the story forward. It makes for a very compelling read.
The Mercy Seat really showcases Winthrop’s writing skills. There is an elegant, almost poetic quality to her writing, which contrasts with the bleakness of the story, and a flow to the tale which makes the book impossible to put down. As the clock slowly ticks towards the hour of the execution, there is a sense of helplessness and inevitability that invades the pages. The first part of the tale leans more towards storytelling and setting the scene, whereas the later part moves into a more contemplative state, examining the conscience of each narrator as they reflect upon the impending execution.  It is such an absorbing tale that I felt almost shocked when it ended. I still felt there was more of a story to be told, yet in some ways I liked the ambiguity that the ending provided.
The Mercy Seat really is a profound and powerful story – stark, brutal and real but, at the same time tender and compassionate. This is a tale of racism and injustice, of grief and secrets and, ultimately, of the love between a child and their parent. This is a thought-provoking tale that will stay with you a long time after it concludes. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop was born and raised in New York City. She graduated from Harvard University in 2001 with a BA in English and American Literature and Language, and in 2004 she received her Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of California at Irvine. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications including the Missouri Review and the Indiana Review. Fireworks, her first novel, was published by Sceptre in 2006, her second, December, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick for 2009, she published her third novel, The Why of  Things, in 2013. The Mercy Seat is her most recent work, published by Sceptre. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, daughter and St.Bernard, and is Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Endicott College.


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