The Mercy Seat

( 4 )

Overview

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.

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The Mercy Seat

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Overview

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.

  • Strange Business, a collection of linked stories that won the 1993 Oklahoma Book Award, is available from Penguin.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Among the many triumphs of this story of thick and bad blood, none surpasses its depiction of time and place: Oklahoma in the late 1800s, a gritty epoch of guns, whiskey and horses. But this is no mere western shoot-'em-up. Told most often in the voice of young Mattie Lodi, this first novel reverberates with the girl's sadness, spirit and longing. In 1887, when Mattie is 10, her father, John, and his brother, Lafayette "Fate" Lodi, leave Kentucky with their families to escape arrest for having violated gun patent law. A preternaturally gifted gunsmith, John vows to forsake his craft. While Fate prospers by treating Indian Territory as a land of outlaw opportunity, John's passage west brings one affliction after another: Mattie's mother dies in Arkansas of a broken heart, and all five children arrive in Oklahoma with scarlet fever. Although Mattie is described as the "incarnation of human will," it's her introspective nature that powers this tale of pride and resentment. Mattie's capacity "to enter the soul of another... for the sake of mercy" complicates what might otherwise have seemed a tale too overtly archetypal, too sternly Old Testament. Askew's prose is mesmerizing, saturated with the rhythms of the prophets and patriarchs (as heard by Faulkner rather than Steinbeck). The story she tells is unforgettable. Author tour. (Aug.) FYI: Askew is the author of the 1993 short story collection Strange Business, reissued in June 1997 by Viking.
Library Journal
Eleven-year-old Mattie Lodi narrates most of this story about the utter destruction of her family, which begins in 1888 when her renegade uncle's criminal activities force the family to leave their native Kentucky for the wild, lawless Indian Territory. By the time they settle in Oklahoma, Mattie's mother and sister are dead, her brother is brain-damaged, and her father has withdrawn into impenetrable silence. Then a violent feud begins to stew between him and his brother. Mattie tries to hold her family together but eventually becomes the catalyst for the bloody climax to the feud. Askew (Strange Business, Viking 1993) also weaves Native and Christian spiritualities into the fabric of this Cain-and-Abel tale. The novel's weakness is the inconstancy in narration; Mattie's voice is so strong and true that other narrators pale in comparison, which causes confusion. The strength of the novel is Askew's rich, gritty detailing of frontier life. Recommended for historical fiction collections.Editha Ann Wilberton, Kansas City P.L., Kan.
James Polk
"Biblical echos sound throughout...Askew has a fine sense of place, which the Mercy Seat draws upon in arresting ways...you can't deny its relentless, almost hypnotic force." -- The New York Times Book Review
Sandra Scofield
"A powerful novel in a mesmerizing prose out of the old testament by way of Faulkner. Askew's depiction of Oklahoma in the late 1880s is a triumph of scholarship and imagination. She writes with an unerring sense of myth -- the way we describe our path so that we know what is right and wrong...Willa Askew is a prodigious talent, and her novel is an important accomplishment." -- New York Newsday
Kirkus Reviews
Oklahoma native Askew follows the spare, haunting stories of her debut collection, Strange Business (1992), with a wrenching Cain-and-Abel first novel set in a vividly realized 19th-century American West. In 1886, brothers John and (La) Fayette "Fate" Lodi make a hurried move from their Kentucky homeland to the promise of new land and a new start in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Their story is initially narrated by John's ten-year-old daughter Mattie, who knows it is her uncle's dishonest dealings that have forced their move, and also intuits "the brotherness that would not let them love one another nor unbind themselves." This troubled union dominates the rest of their days and precipitates the violent climax toward which the novel inexorably moves. Askew shifts adroitly among Mattie's narration, the "testimony" of other family and neighbors, and an omniscient over-voice (reminiscent of that in Faulkner's novels) that effectively summarizes and interprets actions that their participants only partially understand. The hardships endured during the Lodis' journey westward establish the pattern for a succession of beautifully developed extended scenes, including the wasting away and sudden death (from homesickness and heartbreak) of Mattie's mother, Mattie's own exhausted efforts to mother her younger siblings (most strikingly, her confrontation with a black wet-nurse she accuses of "witching" her baby sister), her "spells" and their relation to Mattie's belief in the world of spirits, and the climactic action that separates and will eventually, ironically, reunite the troubled brothers. Askew excels at indirect characterization: Her portrayals (entirely through others' eyes) ofJohn Lodi's patient, stoical forbearance (he's a skilled gunsmith, who turns his weapons, as it were, into ploughshares) and his brother Fate's mean, shifty criminality are marvelously concise yet full-blooded. And Mattie is simply one of the most engaging and heartbreaking characters in contemporary fiction. Reminiscent of the work of Elizabeth Madox Roberts and perhaps Wright Morris's Plains Song. A magnificent debut novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140265156
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 5/28/1998
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 697,037
  • Product dimensions: 5.47 (w) x 8.07 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Rilla Askew is the author of Strange Business, a collection of stories, and of the novel The Mercy Seat, nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association Award and winner of the Western Heritage Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. She divides her time between the San Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma and upstate New York.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
THE MERCY SEAT

In a Land Without Mercy

Against the background of the American Civil War, slavery, Indian removal, manifest destiny, outlaw legends, and the ordinary, everyday rigors of frontier life unfolds a story of two brothers. John Lodi is quiet and honest, dedicated to and gifted at his blacksmith's craft, while his brother Lafayette is loquacious and shrewd, harboring a penchant for bootlegged liquor, underhanded deals, and illegal guns. As different as they are, these two men and their families are knotted together by blood, a knot inevitably to be dissolved by blood. The Lodi clan rattles out of Kentucky one foggy midnight to escape retribution for breaking a gun patent, heading for the lawless Indian Territory destined to become Oklahoma. The abandonment of home and kin, and the journey itself, seems to take more of a toll on John's family, the worst loss being the death of John's wife. Numbly grieving, tattered, and sick with red fever, John Lodi and his children do not catch up to Lafayette in Indian Territory until six months later. In this new land, forcibly relocated Native Americans, freed slaves, and hard, circumspect white men form a community riddled with suspicion, dislike, and, at times, violence. The impossibility of resolving conflicts between cultures is emphasized by the irreparably discordant relationship of the Lodi brothers, between whom there is never a moment's understanding or harmony.

John's eldest child, a girl called Mattie, has inherited her mother's relentless will, as well as urgent&-if mysterious&-mission that she believes will save her family and deliver them safely back home to Kentucky. Her child's perception deepens and broadens and we see that a mystical gift of vision sets Mattie apart from her brothers and sisters. Awash with painful memories that belong to a liberated slave-woman, Mattie struggles against her own compassion to maintain the racial enmity she feels is necessary to safequard her family from the woman's alien influence. Another time, sitting amidst the ash and dust of her family's destroyed possessions, Mattie relives the deaths and thwarted desires of her ancestors. Yet with her pragmatic pioneer's mind and will, Mattie rejects her spiritual gift of sensitivity with all her might. For here, in this American wilderness, we are shown in the strained misunderstanding between brothers and strangers, family members and members of different cultures, there can exist no sympathy, no compassion, and indeed, no mercy. Caught between the violence of human will and the capriciousness of Fate, with both longing and antipathy in their hearts, these characters refuse to become what nature, or their Creator, intended them to be and their legacy transforms their country utterly.


ABOUT RILLA ASKEW

Both of Rilla Askew's novels to date, Strange Business 1992 and The Mercy Seat 1997, are situated in her home state of Oklahoma. She was born in the foothills of the Sans Bois Mountains in 1951, a fifth generation citizen of her state. The western landscape and history that is a part of Askew's heritage lives on in her imagination and her work. The Mercy Seat is based on Askew's own family's relocation from Kentucky, and many incidents materialize into fiction from a distant past that was kept alive through family stories. Askew's deep connection to her surroundings is evident everywhere in her work. In The Mercy Seat, she says, "This country. Oklahoma. The very sound of it is home."

Askew originally moved to New York to become an actress, but turned instead to writing plays and fiction. Critical and popular response to her work was immediate and overwhelmingly positive, her first book winning the Oklahoma Book Award. The Mercy Seat was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, the Oklahoma Book award, and the Mountains and Plains award for fiction, and won the Western Heritage award for best novel of 1997. Askew now moves back and forth between the southern Catskills and the Sans Bois Mountains of Oklahoma.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. The book begins, "There are voices in the earth here, telling truth in old stories. Go down to the hidden places by the waters, listen: you will hear them, buried in sand and clay...." In what ways does the geography of the U.S. tell the story of the Lodis or help to forward the plot? How is landscape a character in this story, as well as the setting, active in unraveling its plot?
  2. This is both an essentially American and a recognizably ancient story, a retelling of the Biblical account of the brothers Cain and Abel. How does this book's theme of exile work in the Biblical and in the American sense? What is it the Lodis long for and wish to return to?
  3. According to the Native American healer Thula Henry, there is an essential "Fourth Part" missing from the white man's spirituality, a part that sets nature in balance and maintains Thula's own soul is in harmony, at least until she joins her destiny to Matt Lodi's. Could you argue that the author is hinting that Native American people are privy to an Edenic existence, an existence desperately sought and simultaneously rejected and destroyed by the encroaching whites? How does Mattie's rejection of her gift effect that argument?
  4. Mattie fears and is feared by the life-sustaining women she encounters: the black woman who nurses Lyda, Thula, who saves Matt's life on arguably three occasions, and even Jessie, who is bound by a sense of duty greater than her own unwillingness to help John Lodi's children. How does this explain or complicate Matt's failure to "become" a woman? Why does Matt systematically suspect and reject the nurturing gestures of others and her own compassionate urges?
  5. Demaris Lodi is an elusive character, dying early and leaving a restless mission to her eldest daughter. Was this a consciously bestowed legacy? Do you agree with Matt that her mother "died of a broken heart?" How does the tin box and its contents illuminate Demaris to her daughter? How do these ancient clan loyalties and betrayals cast a light on Mattie's own angry devotion to her family?
  6. John Lodi is a miraculously skilled blacksmith and Matt Lodi has "gifts of the spirit." Why do each of them reject their gifts? Does John's more clearly spelled out reasoning shed any light on how Mattie feels about her gift?
  7. How does the incident of the mules witnessed by Burden Mitchelltree pose as both foreshadowing of and a metaphor for the showdown that would occur between John and Lafayette nine years later? How does it inform Mitchelltree's understanding of the brothers' relationship and influence him in his crucial role in John's trial?
  8. Just as within Thula's mystical "four parts" opposites are both contraries and complementaries, we see John Lodi's four surviving children as both contrary and complementary to one another. The two girls serve as nearly polar opposites to one another, as do the boys, yet amongst their differences there is a strange harmony. How are they necessary to one another's survival? How does Jim Dee's abandonment of the family effect its balance?
  9. Fayette Lodi's name is shortened to "Fate" by the terse Oklahoma dialect, making one wonder if he is truly an instrument of fate. What are Fayette's motivations? How do John's differ? Matt's? Jessie's? What is the relationship between fate and human will in this story? Which seems to have the upper hand in the unfolding of its plot?
  10. To what do you attribute John Lodi's relentless silence, which he will break neither to instruct his children nor to retaliate against the threats, challenges, and accusations of his drunken, gun-loving brother? What keeps John from deserting Fayette? To whom, and how, does John show affection?
  11. In the last scene, Jessie becomes aware of "...a terrible, hopeless grief at humankind's ruthless paltriness on this earth&-and her part in it. Her terrible part in it" 419. How would you define Jessie's part in it? How is she responsible for the rift between the two brothers? Why did she give the carbine to Jonaphrene?
  12. At one point, Jessie becomes aware that "the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children." If this is true, what are the sins of Fayette and John Lodi and how are they visited upon the younger generation? In a larger sense, what are the sins of the American forbears and how are they manifest in the major characters? Are the African-Americans and Native Americans in this story somehow exempt from, if victim of, these original American sins?
  13. Distrust and judgment between races abound in this book. Analyze the interactions between Mattie and the black woman, Mitchelltree and the Lodi Brothers, Thula and Jessie. How does the communication and understanding between races, or lack thereof, add tension, intrigue, and conflict to the story? Could these dynamics correspond to race relations today?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2007

    Way Too Deliberate!!!

    I'm not even halfway through the book yet and it's already hard to stick with the story. Rilla writes excessively about each and every little detail. Come On!! She took almost a whole page just to describe Matties face! The story will not flow because of her excessiveness. She goes off on some tangent about some minor detail of the story and spends several paragraphs describing this un-important detail and thus interrupts the flow of the book. This was supposedly touted as one of the best books of the year. Hardly! I guess Rilla thinks that the more words you write, the better the story. She takes so long to get where she wants to go with the story. I'll stick this one out since I paid for the book but never again will I buy a novel of hers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2002

    Worst book I have ever read!

    Hands down the worst book I have ever read! I pity anyone who has spent money on it. No direction. Longwinded. This could have been an interesting story, to bad it was so poorly written.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2011

    Not Good

    Couldn't sustain interest in this book. Save your money and time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2007

    Excitement from the first page on

    The author is wonderful. She has you immediately interested in her characters. Descriptions of people and scenery are some of the best I've read. Full of truth about that period in history.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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