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May 17, 2018

Elizabeth H. Winthrop's Playlist for Her Novel "The Mercy Seat"

The Mercy Seat

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Elizabeth H. Winthrop's The Mercy Seat is an unsettling and important novel that covers an execution in 1943 Louisiana.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"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."

In her own words, here is Elizabeth H. Winthrop's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Mercy Seat:

The Mercy Seat is a fairly grim novel set in 1943 Louisiana and takes place during the hours leading up to the execution of Willie Jones, a young black man wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman, Grace Sutcliffe, with whom he was actually in mutual love. The novel is told from the points of view of nine different characters, all of whom have their own complicated histories, relationships, and roles in the evening's main event. The songs on this playlist speak sometimes to the themes in the novel, sometimes to the feelings of the characters involved, and sometimes they simply reflect the novel's overall mood.

The Mercy Seat—Johnny Cash

I wrote this book without any title in mind; it was Amy Hundley at Grove Atlantic who came up with the idea of calling the book "The Mercy Seat," a song originally written by Nick Cave. The song is "narrated" by a man, wrongfully convicted, waiting on death row for his execution via the electric chair—a plot line that echoes that of The Mercy Seat. According to the Hebrew Bible, the mercy seat was also the lid placed on the Ark of the Covenant, and the space that God was meant to appear.

Hymn #35— Joe Pug

This song reminds me of the struggles of both Father Hannigan, Willie's mentor, and Gabe, the prosecuting attorney's son. Hannigan has a hard time reconciling how the evil and bigotry and hatred that exist in society squares with the idea of a benevolent God. During the execution scene, Hannigan wonders how there can be a God "in a world where such as this exists." Gabe has a similarly difficult time reconciling how his father—the man who sits on the edge of his bed at night, or takes him fishing, or pitches him baseballs— could possibly be the man responsible for sending Willie Jones to the electric chair. For Hannigan, God contains contradictions; for Gabe, his father Polly does.

Wildfire—Mandolin Orange

I fell in love with Mandolin Orange while I was writing The Mercy Seat, and so I associate the music with the mind-space I inhabited as I wrote. The song "Wildfire" resonated particularly, as song addresses the lasting divides that exist in our country—divides rooted in our country's history of hatred and mistreatment of others. One part in particular speaks to racism and the lasting legacy of slavery, which is at the heart of the novel.

It should have been different

It could have been easy

But too much money rolled in to ever end slavery

The cry for war spread like wildfire

Civil War came, Civil War went

Brother fought brother, the South was spent

But its true demise was hatred passed down through the years

It should have been different

It could have been easy

But pride has a way of holding too firm to history

And it burns like wildfire

My Burden With Me—Mipso

This beautiful song is sung from the point of view of a girl who has died in a train wreck while escaping to meet her forbidden lover, "a low-born boy" whom after she met him she found herself "lost in the light of a flame burning wild." This story forbidden love and its deadly consequences, though different from what transpired between Grace and Willie, still resonates; when I hear this song, I think of Grace singing from beyond the grave, especially the lines, "Can you hear my love as he cries to sleep."

The Night We Met—Lord Huron

The Mercy Seat is populated by characters in relationships that have transformed over time, and not necessarily for the better. The relationship between Ora and Dale (the owners of the gas station outside of town), initially strained by the birth of their son, is, eighteen years later, doubly strained by his departure for WWII. Each of them longs for the relationship they used to have, but the gap between them now is unbridgeable. Nell and Polly's marriage (the prosecuting DA and his wife) is also shaky. Polly has been spending the bulk of his time since DA at the office, and Nell, a northerner who gave up her career as an artist to follow Polly south, can hardly recognize her husband in a man who would seek capital punishment for rape. Willie, like the other couples, would long to go back to the "night [he] met" Grace, perhaps so that things would turn out differently, and she'd still be alive. Probably all of these characters would like to go back to the night they met and take a course different from the one they took to wind up where they are.

Broken Chair—Chris and Thomas

This song is about recognizing circumstances you can't control. It's a nod to the human impulse to try (unsuccessfully) to fix the unfixable, to "mend what's bound to fall apart," which is what both Polly and Hannigan try to do—Polly as a hopeful new DA, Hannigan as a missionary priest. While the song in the end is about resigning oneself to accepting that which can't be changed and thereby gaining inner peace—which neither Hannigan nor Polly achieve—it evokes the same feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that both characters feel in the face of what is "broken," whether an individual, a system, or society.

Jump Mountain Blues—Mandolin Orange

This song was inspired by folklore. According to the tale, a young Native American woman fell in love with a young man and wanted to marry him, but her father wanted her to marry another, richer man. A contest ensued in which the young woman was to run up Jump Mountain, and whichever of the two men was able to catch would have her as his bride. Rather than risk being caught by the man she didn't love, the young woman, hurled herself off the top of the mountain and died. The song is sung by her father, who now lives eternally with her ghost and his regret for not allowing her to follow her heart. I would hope that Grace's father, who also denied Grace her love before her death, lives with the same regret.

Sitting Room—Beta Radio

This song is hauntingly dominated by minor chords and high pitched backing harmonies, and between the unearthly sonic construction and the abstract, undefined imagery ("I will wait for you in the hollow I have hewn," "What did the spirit do beneath the waning crescent moon?") it has an almost spiritual quality that, to my ears, evokes the mood of The Mercy Seat. It is unsettling and absorbing at the same time. The final, repeated lyrics, which reference "offering all for you," can apply to perhaps each of the characters in the novel; in some way or another, each has made or does make some kind of a sacrifice for someone else.

A Thousand Miles Away—Michael Mascioli

This piece made me cry the first time I heard it—not because it is sad, necessarily, but because it stirred up some emotion deep inside that was a curious combination of loss and longing and wistfulness and resignation. When I think about the book cinematically, which I sometimes do, this piece is what I hear playing over the end of the novel: Gabe lying broken in the field under the stars; Nell and Polly at the kitchen table in the dark; Hannigan sitting in the dark with his whiskey; Frank (Willie's father) in the graveyard with a sledgehammer; Dale with the dog on the floor of the hallway, waiting for Ora; Lane (the prison trusty who chauffeured the chair to the execution) in shackles heading back to Angola; Willie in his cell at dawn.

Elizabeth H. Winthrop and The Mercy Seat links:

the author's website

Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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