On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie’s execution means, a complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges.
The book grows out of the historical record of the South at a time when the newly arrived electric chair was beginning to make the lynch mob obsolete. The particular crude machine in The Mercy Seat performs in ways that lead the reader to think deeply about capital punishment and why some are drawn either to support it or to hate it ... At first, the many little sections might put off a few readers, but soon they generate a great deal of narrative tension, and The Mercy Seat becomes a well-timed page turner ... This is a worthy novel that gathers great power as it rolls on propelled by its many voices. Though a reader might wish it were longer, that the prisoner had more to share or that his lover had her say, in a strange way, the reader’s longing for more shows just how accomplished this work is.
...a deeply felt story about a prisoner awaiting execution in 1940s Louisiana ... Winthrop's remarkable fourth novel ... 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 ... Winthrop’s brilliantly orchestrated voices, evocative detail and almost unbearable narrative tension add up to an exceptional reading experience.
The Mercy Seat is a miracle of a novel, with rapid-fire sentences that grab you and propel you to the next page. It's the kind of book that makes you want to get out a pencil and diagram its structure and figure out why it's so compelling ... Part of the attraction has to do with Winthrop's withholding of information, with hints, then pulling the rug out from underneath the reader ... Just know that you'll be rewarded if you stick with Winthrop's narrative strategy ... This does not mean that The Mercy Seat should be considered, in any way, as fun. It's a tragedy, heartbreaking and devastating in its conclusions. It illuminates the ways that racism and hate can tear communities apart, and Winthrop is ruthless — but not didactic — in the telling ... She has done her homework on the Jim Crow era — and nails the details ... It's a breakout. It's a wonder.