The Mercy Seat
Louisiana, 1943. An 18-year-old African American man sits alone in his cell awaiting his execution. His crime is the alleged rape of a white woman. The story of Willie Jones is told through multiple perspectives, all within the course of the eve before his death. Everyone is affected in one way or another by the impending execution, and together the reader learns what events transpired to lead Willie to where he is. Along the way, we learn the motives, the biases, the feelings of other people who are touched by Willie’s sentence. Their lives come together in sometimes surprising ways because of Willie, lives which might not otherwise ever intersect.
The chapters, all told from a different character’s perspective, are short, which allows for a quick read of this novel, though the backdrop of Willie’s story is enough to slow most readers down for the difficulty of the topic. Winthrop takes readers to a small town in the Deep South in the early 1940s, careful to use a variety of voices and backgrounds to show the conflict surrounding Willie’s incarceration and scheduled execution. This might be the most realistic part of the novel, in fact, as no one’s story is ever entirely black or white. There are never simple answers, especially when it comes to the frailty of human lives, and most especially when race plays such a role. Winthrop investigates the polarities through her characters in a manner that feels fluid and not manipulative, as stories of this nature often can feel.
This is not always an easy read, but it’s important to note that due to the subject matter, it should not be easy to read throughout. Winthrop writes beautifully and manages to capture the complexities of life and the penal system while giving the reader plenty of food for thought in their own life. Recommended.