The Mercy Seat: A Novel
Few first novels garner the kind of powerful praise awarded this epic story that takes place on the dusty, remorseless Oklahoma frontier, where two brothers are deadlocked in a furious rivalry. Fayette is an enterprising schemer hoping to cash in on his brother’s talents as a gunsmith. John, determined not to repeat the crime that forced both families to flee their Kentucky homes, doggedly follows his tenacious brother west, while he watches his own family disintegrate. Wondrously told through the wary eyes of John’s ten-year-old daughter, Mattie, whose gift of premonition proves to be both a blessing and a curse, The Mercy Seat resounds with the rhythms of the Old Testament even as it explores the mysteries of the Native American spirit world. Sharing Faulkner’s understanding of the inescapable pull of family and history, and Cormac McCarthy’s appreciation of the stark beauty of the American wilderness, Rilla Askew imbues this momentous work with her tremendous energy and emotional range. It is an extraordinary novel from a prodigious new talent.
The Mercy Seat is a powerful novel, rich with biblical allusions and authoritative, haunting depictions of the landscape and life of the American West in the second half of the 19th century. The story begins as a young girl, Mattie, is called from sleep to help her father prepare for her family’s flight from their Kentucky home, its pie safe and its oak bed frames. Reasons for their sudden departure are only slowly revealed and never completely explained.
The center of the evolving story is the conflict between Mattie’s father and his brother. John Lodi is skilled in the art of blacksmithing and gun making; Fayette Lodi is anxious to use that skill to turn a profit for himself. Although the brothers travel west together and eventually settle in the same corner of Oklahoma in the valley of the San Bois Mountains, they have no shared ideas on how to create new lives for themselves or their families. Violence eventually erupts, but it goes beyond the two brothers to infect their wives, their children, and the very land they inhabit.
It is a story that mirrors that of Cain and Abel, yet its biblical echo is only one of the features which make this multilayered, beautifully crafted novel so enjoyable. There are hints of Faulkner, too, as Askew employs his technique of using a number of voices to tell the story: there is Mattie herself, mother before her time to her younger siblings, yet refusing to mature into a woman; there is Thula Henry, Choctaw woman who both understands Mattie’s gifts and tries to exorcise her demons; and Grady Dewberry, loquacious son of John’s employer recalling events that marked his childhood.
This is more than just a simple repositioning of the Snopes from Mississippi to Oklahoma, however. It is a vision of the settling of America with a deep and abiding appreciation for the combustible elements that participated in it. Evangelical preachers riding their circuits, Native Americans pushed farther and farther west, former slaves freed from their masters but not from prejudice, and white men on the run from the law of the more settled East, all figure prominently. Some patience is required as the central tragedy looms, but for the most part, the novel is poignant, gripping, and even heartbreaking. —K.A. Crouch