The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H Winthrop

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The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H Winthrop

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Jones
Reviewed by Louise Jones
Summary: Time ticks ever forward as a young man prepares for his electrocution by electric chair in a small town filled with prejudice and ignorance.
Buy? yes Borrow? yes
Pages: 240 Date: June 2018
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-1473672499

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In an isolated Louisiana town, a young black prisoner sits in his dingy cell, staring at the shadow of the window bars cast onto the concrete wall by the evening's dying sun rays. At midnight, he will be dead; strapped to a chair and electrocuted for the rape of a white girl, who later committed suicide. He is resigned to his fate; it is futile to protest his innocence or to expect anyone to believe what really happened; after all, love between a black man and a white woman was never going to have a happy ending in a small town filled with small-minded people.

As the clock ticks, it is time for the town citizens to reflect and make preparations for what will be a memorable night. A group of rowdy rednecks plan to join a swelling crowd in order to celebrate the death of the man they hate. At the same time, the father of the prisoner makes a long, lonely journey with his tired old mule in order to lay a headstone for his boy. The local priest makes his way to the cell to deliver a last meal and a few token words of comfort. And ominously, a truck travels along the dusty road toward the town delivering a precious cargo in its trailer: an innocuous-looking chair with leather straps around the arms and a wooden rail between the legs.

The Mercy Seat uses multiple narratives in order to tell a moving and thought provoking story. Although the narrative changes perspective every few pages, the timeline remains alarmingly linear; ticking slowly towards midnight and its inevitable conclusion. The effect is profound: it creates a feeling of helplessness in the reader; a sensation of watching sand trickling through an hourglass and being completely powerless to stop it.

The Louisiana setting is brought to life by descriptive and poetic wordplay. We can picture ourselves buckling under the oppressive heat, hemmed in by acres and acres of cotton fields as far as the eye can see. In a way, all of the characters in the story are prisoners; be it geographically, mentally or socially. In this part of the world, prejudice runs deep and manifests itself in ugly ways. Those wishing for change are swimming against the tide and even those in power can do very little in the face of intense public pressure.

Fatherhood is a strong theme throughout the book and we see how different parent/child relationships play out over the course of the story. Dale and Ora have a son who is missing in the war; Ora makes up for it by offering candy to the little boys who pick cotton nearby. Polly and Nell have a son called Gabe who is their entire world, but this vulnerability is exploited by those who wish to influence Polly, who is the local DA. Frank is the elderly father of the prisoner, Will. He is tired and old but wants to do one last thing for his son, even though the task seems insurmountable. As the story develops, so do the nature of these parental relationships.

The Mercy Seat is a story that stays with the reader long after the final page. The ending is left ambiguous; a compelling tool in itself as it hands power to us, as readers, to fill in the blanks about what happens next for the characters that we have bonded with over the course of the book. How the story pans out in our own minds allows for moments of self-reflection and perhaps reveals something about our own views and choices. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

The themes of this story will draw obvious comparisons with the classic To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a lesson of humanity and compassion in the face of ignorance and prejudice. You might also like Equator by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator).

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