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The Mercy Seat
Rilla Askew
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INTRODUCTION

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?