The Mercy Seat

The Mercy Seat

2.2 4
by Rilla Askew

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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… See more details below


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 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

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.95(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Rudolf Anaya
"Every once in a while a novel comes along which grips you with intensity, its texture and poetic language. Such novels sweep one into the pain and suffering of the characters, and as you read you feel you're actually living the story. The Mercy Seat is such a novel. It's a testament to human spirit, and it will endure."

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