About the Book
“One of the finest writers of her generation” (Brad Watson), and author of three previously acclaimed novels, Elizabeth H. Winthrop delivers a brave new book that will launch her distinguished career anew. An incisive, meticulously crafted portrait of race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South that is as intimate and tense as a stage drama, The Mercy Seat is a stunning account of one town’s foundering over a trauma in their midst.
On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. Across the state, a truck driven by a convict and his keeper carries the executioner’s chair closer. On a nearby highway, Willie’s father Frank lugs a gravestone on the back of his fading, old mule. In his office the DA who prosecuted Willie reckons with his sentencing, while at their gas station at the crossroads outside of town, married couple Ora and Dale grapple with their grief and their secrets.
As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie’s execution means, an intricately layered and complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges. Moving from voice to voice, Winthrop elegantly brings to stark light the story of a town, its people, and its injustices. The Mercy Seat is a brutally incisive and tender novel from one of our most acute literary observers.
Praise for The Mercy Seat
“A staggering multivoiced novel set during WWII… Winthrop’s survey of these divergent lives compounds their individual pain into a withering critique of a cancerous society. This potent novel about prejudice and the constraints of challenging the status quo will move and captivate readers.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Based on true events and opening with lyrics from Nick Cave’s 1988 song “Mercy Seat,” award-winning Winthrop’s engrossing story (after The Why of Things) unfolds through strong memorable characters. A remarkable work with a stunning unexpected conclusion, not to be missed.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“The lives of these characters mesh in the events surrounding the execution, and their points of view cycle through short chapters that build tension as midnight draws near. Winthrop’s carefully structured novel is a nuanced, absorbing, atmospheric examination of how racism tears at the whole of society.” .”—Booklist (starred review)
“In this spare, taut novel, the separate stories of the people around an execution join together to form a portrait of a town, a mentality, a moment in time. This is a compelling, sorrowful read, deeply perceptive and wonderfully full of grace.”—Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree
“In her new novel, Elizabeth Winthrop writes with a moral certainty equaled by the lucid confidence of her prose. Starkly beautiful, unflinchingly honest and stretched taut across the hours of a single, terrible night, The Mercy Seat opens with a flatbed bearing a deadly cargo and never for an instant lets off the gas, chapters flashing by like fence posts on one of Winthrop’s rural Louisiana highways. The trip is dark and human and complex and there is very little mercy at the end of the road. A remarkable novel by an immensely talented writer.”—Michael Knight
“This taut, deft novel asks us to look, and to look hard, and our willingness is profoundly honored.”—Michelle Latiolais
“Please celebrate Winthrop’s audacious determination to walk through the narrative minefield of this account of an electrocution in the Deep South during the Gothic worst of Jim Crow times. Winthrop redeems her daring by lovely discipline and dignity, by the care she lavishes on each of her rounded characters. The Mercy Seat is truly a bravura performance.”—Geoffrey Wolff
Praise for The Why of Things
“A fast-paced, entertaining summer read.”—People (3 out of 4 stars)
“Keenly observed…richly drawn….[Winthrop]’s message, as complex as it is simple, is that the unendurable can and will be endured only if one chooses to go on.”—New York Times Book Review
“With insight, respect and luminous clarity, Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop plumbs the afterlife of grief: the futile attempts to reconcile old habits and perceptions to the relentless questions that trail behind any unspeakable loss. This haunting, shimmering novel reminds us how all of us know our families: with unimaginable intimacy, and hardly at all.”—Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of Far from the Tree
“Once again, Elizabeth Winthrop conjures light from a dark place in her beautifully constructed, touching novel The Why of Things… The book starts and ends at the same quarry’s edge, but a quarry changed. Winthrop’s quiet magic makes the water’s mutable darkness bearable and better–nothing to be afraid of, a substance of possibilities.”—Christine Schutt author of Pure Hollywood