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The Mercy Seat Paperback – May 1, 1998

4.0 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From 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.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; (2nd) edition (May 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140265155
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140265156
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,501,415 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is not an attempt at a review, it is comment. Being a native Oklahoman and a kind of shirt-tail historian, I have nibbled forever at the edges of that formative time in the history of Oklahoma and the making of its people, delighting in finding tidbits and hints of how it really was when my world was in the making. Rilla Askew took my hand and led me there. Gave me time to breathe the air and smell the cooking. Let me feel the rough, peeling bark of a windowless cabin's walls, put my hand on the hurt of a beautiful child in the process of being destroyed by the ambitions and defeats of the adults who make up her world.
I'm waiting for my memory of it to cool so I can read it again. Visit Mattie, Fate, John. Maybe lay a compassionate hand on their shoulder.
Reviews, comparisons, and synopses fail the book. It is not just a good read. It is an experience.
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Format: Hardcover
Rilla Askew's fascinating novel succeeds on several levels. She tells a good story -- one that made this reader want to keep turning pages long after bedtime -- and she accurately portrays a way of life and a multi-layered society that has been ignored by most American writers. However, most impressively, she mixes biblical truths, wisdom of the ages, passion, and the creative imperative, to create a morality tale that is all her own. Askew has been compared to William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, but she is unique: Like them, her talent is undeniable, and like them, she writes about forgotten groups of people, but her voice and the rhythms of her language are incomparable. Her writing is informed by the King James Bible, but the beauty and power of "The Mercy Seat" are strong enough to stand on their own merits, without comparison.
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Format: Hardcover
Not all readers will finish Rilla Askew's THE MERCY SEAT, for the novel is a hefty one, and at times seems to move like a film shot underwater, in slow motion. But those who do read it to the end will never forget it.

For thirty-five years, I had the great joy of teaching university literature courses,and I tell you there are not five writers who reach as deep into the human heart as Askew. Faulkner, yes, Toni Morrison, Proust, Flannery O'Connor. (Henry James, but at what cost to the reader!) And though never in a novel, Emily Dickinson reached that terrain again and again. (And of course several of the Russians, but of them I can't speak, having read only wonky translations.)

What gets in the way of human happiness and fulfillment? Why, we do, we ourselves. Each one of us blocks our own way, hinders those we love,and in turn is savaged by them. Askew takes a small handful of ordinary people, and lets us accompany them on the heart-breaking trek. She shows us how a gift can be anathema to one who has it and to one who envies it. Young Matty is mystified and beleaguered by her metaphysical gifts; her father is hectored almost unto death by a brother's insane craving for his great skill, even genius, as a gunsmith. Thula Henry, a Choctaw wise-woman, has healing gifts and spiritual insight that she neither quite trusts nor can ignore.

Though the book is long, Askew still exercises the great skill of not telling us as much as we might want to know. What IS the matter with Matty's beautiful younger sister? And just what did the terrible fever do to her brother Thomas, who is present in many scenes, yet not there? Less than halfway through the book, another brother, Little Jim Dee, disappears, and we're told nothing, but we are left free to unravel that thread.

THE MERCY SEAT is as full of beauty and terror as the great plains of the Oklahoma prairies where it is set. Come to THE MERCY SEAT and find out for yourself.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is well worth your time and in fact will take you out of time and not let you back until you have finished the story. A well wrought novel that ranks with the best.
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Format: Paperback
Rilla Askew's first novel The Mercy Seat contains some marvelous writing, but is ultimately an uneven effort. Telling the story of ten-year-old Matti Lodi and her travels from Kentucky to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Askew attempts to retell the Cain and Abel story, in the struggles between Mattie's father John and his older brother Lafayette (significantly nicknamed "Fate"). In the novel, Askew seems to pick up and then drop again several threads of story and character. The book, however, contains two wonderful set pieces. The first is the death of Mattie's mother and the family's arrival in Oklahoma at the home of Fate, who had forged ahead. Second is the showdown between the two brother's, resulting in Fate's demise. Askew tells and retells this same event successively from the viewpoint of several characters, each narrator adding his "take" on the events. One would think this re-telling of the same thing, which takes the final third of the novel, would wear on the reader, but Askew handles it with great aplomb and suspense. She is a very promising writer.
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Format: Hardcover
This novel grabs you from the very first page and doesn't let go until the end. Leaves you wondering how a 10 year old girl can survive such a trip in a covered wagon to a new territory against the odds this child had to face, the heartache of her mother's death,and having to raise her brothers and sisters
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Format: Paperback
This book is particularly interesting to me since I tramped around the area of the country that serves as the territory of much of the work. There is a uniqueness of this geographical area, given it's kinship with the Indian Nations, early white settlers, and now modern Oklahoma Statehood that is illustrated in a way that captures the unusual and unique character of the people and land it describes.
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