The disparate pieces of Southern justice converge on the last day of Willie Jones' life. The 18-year-old has been convicted of raping Grace Sutcliffe, daughter of the butcher who employed him. Though Willie knows the truth--in fact finds comfort in memories of Grace--he knows the futility of any defense. The "crime" is made more tragic by Grace's death a day later from a self-inflicted shotgun blast. It is 1943 in New Iberia, Louisiana. A special electric chair is being driven to Angola Prison for the midnight event. In the wheel of the flatbed truck is Lane, a trustee happy to be outside a cell, and Seward, a guard sent to supervise him.
In the Jim Crow South, race and identity are inescapable, the coming execution drawing the curious like a magnet in the waning hours of that fateful day--particularly the aging Frank Jones, father of Willie. Frank is on a mission, guiding his elderly mule as it drags a gravestone for his son's burial. The mule is about to collapse, but Frank can't let up, relentlessly driving the beast. Unable to bear his wife's pain, he is focused only on delivering the gravestone to mark Willie's final resting place.
Headed in the same direction, the truck passes the old man and dying mule. It stops for gas, twenty-five cents a gallon, where Dale and Ora run a small gas station and store. The couple become part of the narrative, burdened by sadness and private grief of their own: son Tobe, ever on their minds. The couple once hoped to attract the field workers picking cotton on the plantation bordering their store, but the color line holds, leaving the white folk to their own. Dale and Ora accept the limitations on social congress, visions of a local gathering place but a memory. The invisible walls stand impenetrable.
From chapter to chapter, Elizabeth H. Winthrop animates a series of characters conscious of the impending execution, including the District Attorney who successfully prosecuted Willie for the rape of Grace Sutcliffe, an outrage that must be addressed. His duty is clear, Willie's innocence or guilt moot. Miscegenation is forbidden, Willie's small comfort from memories of their time together notwithstanding, known to him alone. The hours slip away on a day with no tomorrows.
The Jim Crow South lays claim to its social boundaries in 1943, sending a violent, brutal message to non-whites. Posted signs of "white only" act as a stark reminder that unspoken rules will be enforced. Black men, even returning soldiers, are expected to avoid eye contact when spoken to by whites; laws are reserved for some, not all. Willie's execution is a call for celebration, but for those keeping a silent vigil, "the mercy chair" will spare Willie the terror of lynching, the unforgettable sight of "a scaffolding, with human harvest hanging."
With only a few hours left, there are some who yearn for justice, others convinced of the convicted man's innocence, wrongness institutionalized. There are those who see the unfairness but do not speak, their grief a hollow note beneath a subdued hymn to usher Willie to the Promised Land. Deeply moving, the author's paean to a true event is a testament to those who have endured, racism's talons cutting deeply, twisted and enduring in the Land of the Free.