"In deep winter, early February 1887, two brothers, John and Lafayette Lodi, flee Kentucky in the middle of the night, heading west toward Indian Territory. The men carry their families with them in covered wagons, and - hidden between them - a corrosive rivalry born of the inescapable bond of blood. John, tortoise-stubborn, is a master gunsmith; Fayette is jealous, grasping, a mule thief and bootlegger. Between the brothers, an ancient tragedy threatens to play itself out." "Thus opens The Mercy Seat, an unblinking, keen-eyed vision of the settling of the American West, told first by Mattie, the ten-year-old daughter of John Lodi, and echoed in the voices of the white townspeople who migrate into the Indian lands. Set in the harsh and beautiful Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, the novel follows Matt as she struggles to hold her disintegrating family together with a mix of spite, loyalty, and fierce will. When Mattie is struck down by fever, a Choctaw healer brought in to pull the girl back from the territory of the dead recognizes in her a powerful gift of visions.
- PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
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.
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April 01, 2000
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