The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop is a brilliant historical novel which deals with heavy content through the eyes of various onlookers. I really would like to read another book about these characters, this time going more in depth about challenging perceptions. The Mercy Seat was published on 8 May, 2018 by Sceptre books.
The Mercy Seat By Elizabeth H. Winthrop begins with the realisation that a black boy is being put to death by electric chair for raping a local girl who’s household he worked in. The Mercy Seat considers how members of his town are reacting to this, including racist old men, black sympathising women, the district attorney, his son and other neighbourhood kids. We also see Will, the committed criminal, in his cell waiting to be killed and his father’s journey to deliver his gravestone. Not a lot physically happens in this book, as it is more a consideration of the thoughts and feelings of those involved and on the outskirts of the situation.
Why I liked this book…
Honestly, The Mercy Seat is great because you can see things from angles that you would never consider, whether you have grown up with racist people around you or not. I really enjoy the women’s influence over the men and how they can scare them by putting new and interesting thoughts in their heads, even though their opinions would not have been particularly rated at the time. I also like the fact that Winthrop included references to the war and understood what the situation of America was at the time that this event occurred.
The characters are extremely well written and surprisingly well-developed in such a short novel. In just 250 pages, one of the original men to call for the chair is the one considering fighting Will’s corner and taking action against the final plot twist. Other characters develop in the opposite direction, especially with how they treat Polly’s son, Gabe when none of it is not his or his father’s fault. Like I said, it was very interesting to consider the ways that bigots and racists will react to situations like this, especially when they are not directly affected by them. I did feel sorry for Will throughout this book, as he was clearly in love with the girl they are claiming he has raped, but he would rather be sentenced to death so that he can be with her again than rock the boat and risk hurting anybody else.
The only thing about this book that I didn’t like was the pace. I felt that there could have been a lot more action even in the short chapters with the condensed conversations and minimal interactions between characters. I believe that if you choose to read this book, you know what you’re getting into, however, so that is more of a personal point. At times this novel does feel a bit laboured, but only because I didn’t necessarily feel like I was learning much about the characters or the era, but these bits did move along quickly enough.
Overall, I thought this was a 4* book. It is incredibly well-written with excellent characters and a gripping story. While it’s a slow burner, I feel that most people would enjoy it who have an interest in historical novels considering people’s responses to crime and punishment in America. I would recommend this to readers of crime as a shake-up to the typical books they will be used to reading, and to any lovers of historical American-based fiction. As it explores the concepts of racism, justice and mercy, I think it does a great job at capturing Louisiana in the 1940’s and the characters involved in this kind of narrative. Thank you Sceptre for my advance proof copy of The Mercy Seat in exchange for an honest review.