The Mercy Seat

Elizabeth H. Winthrop

The Mercy Seat
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The Mercy Seat

Elizabeth H. Winthrop

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl - a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband.

In this exceptionally powerful novel, Elizabeth Winthrop explores matters of justice, racism and the death penalty in a fresh, subtle and profoundly affecting way. Her kaleidoscopic narrative allows us to inhabit the lives of her characters and see them for what they are - complex individuals, making fateful choices we might not condone, but can understand.


This is writing from an author at the very top of her game, an astonishing book, with echoes of To Kill A Mockingbird (a comparison I don’t use lightly). Beautifully written, it is heartache-making in its depiction of a young black man in Louisiana in 1943 being sent to the chair for the crime of raping a young white girl. A crime he denies, and some in the community believe he didn’t commit.

Set over the course of a day, The Mercy Seat explores the multiple viewpoints of people who are in one way or another affected by the execution of young Will Jones, due to be strapped in to the chair at midnight.

There’s the wife of the District Attorney (the man who’s sentenced Will to death), devastated at the sentence her husband has imposed. There’s the DA himself, haunted by the fact that he sought the death penalty against his better judgment. There’s their young son, confused by the silence of his parents, who’s prepared to stand up to grown men (and feel the brute force of their fists and boots for his efforts). There’s the preacher, uncertain of his own faith, giving comfort to the young Will Jones as he prepares himself for death. There’s the father of the convicted boy, desperately trying to see his son one last time. And there’s Will Jones himself, eighteen years old and reconciling with grace and dignity the patently unfair sentence that’s been handed down to him.

I expect this book will be romping onto all the prize lists this year. It’s absolutely magnificent. And the depth of humanity that Elizabeth H. Winthrop has created out of such a ghastly scenario is evidence of a truly masterful writer.

Gabrielle Williams works as a bookseller at Readings Malvern and is the Grants Officer for the Readings Foundation. She is also the author of books for young adults.

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