One calls it love, one calls it rape. Grace, the only witness, takes her own life.
Louisiana, 1943: Caught in the act, the skin colour leads to assumptions that taint white sheets – first of black, then of blood. Will Jones, a young black man of eighteen, has been accused and convicted of raping Walt Cunningham’s white daughter. These are the hours before the execution by electric chair.
“And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this weighing of the truth
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And, anyway, I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.”
“The Mercy Seat” by Elizabeth H. Winthrop is a bridge across time – though it finds its cornerstone in the past, the present still stands, however disguised, on that same foundation. The reader is offered a contemporary tale at a comfortable distance that leaves enough breathing space not to upset susceptibilities.
The story comes together through the voices of different characters, each chapter focusing on and exploring one’s actions, thoughts and observations, which not always coincide. At first they seem far apart, but as the narrative develops we find them to be almost synchronized, intricate roots of the same tree. Brief in length, these passages create a sense of time – a clock ticking in the background, a heartbeat growing rapid as the dawn approaches.
You can tell you are in the south from the moment it begins, even if you go in blind without having read anything about the book before starting. Winthrop’s writing is one of and for the senses, transporting you in the blink of an eye. The heat of the stove, the smell of fried catfish, the sweetness of pecan pie, caramel melting in your mouth… it’s a beautiful feast of flavour. Every word seems to have been born for that one place in that one sentence, flowing with such ease and grace that you can barely feel the incision as they get under your skin.
To say it all comes down to an open ending is quite the understatement. There is no actual resolution and the reader is left to meander through a vast meadow of possibilities with no horizon in sight.
Violent at times, not just in its physicality but in the feeling of disquiet, the fear of simply being in a world that blames you for it, “The Mercy Seat” is quietly provocative and relevant beyond its pages. There’s an invitation to reflect on prejudice, on racism, but not in an overwhelming way – seeds are scattered across the pages, but it’s the reader’s decision whether to nurture them or leave them be. However, at the end of the day this is a novel about loss: the loss of our children, the loss of the child within us, the loss of our way.
A circular stage divided by the different contexts. A clock ticking as it continuously rotates, light changing as the dawn approaches. Will can be seen at all times, in one corner, even when not presently in scene. That was the image that stuck with book club, a play.
If you enjoyed “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Mercy Seat” by Elizabeth H. Winthrop is for you.