Willie Jones lies on his cot in his cell in New Iberia, La., reflecting on his short life and contemplating his imminent death. His reveries are interrupted when two men enter the room: Burl, a fellow inmate, carrying a bowl and a razor, and Sheriff Grazer, their jailer. “Got to be clean to see the Lord,” says Burl quietly, shaving Willie’s head. “You gotta be bald, boy,” scoffs Grazer, “so the electricity can pass right through that thick skull.”
“The Mercy Seat,” Elizabeth H. Winthrop’s remarkable fourth novel, charts the final hours of a young black man found guilty of raping a white woman in small-town Louisiana in 1943. But this is not solely Willie’s story. The book unfolds via shifting viewpoints, with each chapter focusing on a different member of a divided community. As individuals dwell on the condemned man’s sealed fate, they come to examine their consciences, rail against injustice and reveal their personal hopes, doubts and fears.
Winthrop introduces Lane, a prison trusty, and his keeper, Captain Seward, who are driving across the state in a flatbed truck with their “terrible cargo”: the electric chair, also known as Gruesome Gertie. From here we cut to a gas station at the edge of town, where married owners Dale and Ora are still waiting for news from the Pacific front about their soldier son. Elsewhere, Willie’s father, Frank, sets out on an arduous trek with his son’s gravestone and his skin-and-bone mule. And as the midnight execution nears, Father Hannigan suffers a crisis of faith.
The more glimpses we get into people’s lives, the more we discover that all is not as it originally seemed. Dale has had notification of his son’s death but can’t bring himself to inform his wife: “To show her the letter would be to lose them both.” Frank decides that his son’s days were numbered not during his trial but the time he returned home and found Willie and the white girl in a tender embrace. When the D.A. who prosecuted Willie confesses to his wife that he was coerced by a malignant outside influence, we realize that Winthrop’s clear, spare prose conceals hidden depths and pertinent truths.
This is a novel filled with cruelty and dread, baying mobs and ugly terminology. However, Winthrop tempers the gloom and the hate with gestures of kindness, instances of resolve and redemption and unexpected outcomes. As her characters embark on their own journeys, physical and emotional, they surprise and move us. We champion Ora, adrift and bereft and desperate to stamp out persecution. We read breathlessly when Frank is accosted by a group of racist thugs on the way to his son’s execution. And we feel for that guilty man — or, rather, innocent boy.
Winthrop’s brilliantly orchestrated voices, evocative detail and almost unbearable narrative tension add up to an exceptional reading experience.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Mercy Seat
By: Elizabeth H. Winthrop.
Publisher: Grove Press, 258 pages, $26.