Tuesday, July 22, 2008

White Doves at Morning

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers, yet I’ve had this historical novel sitting unread on my shelves for years now. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up. Because it isn’t one of Burke’s standard, contemporary crime novels? Because the Civil War is a depressing period? Whatever my reason, I’m glad I saved it, because as hectic as my life has become these days, I needed a treat.

The prose is pure Burke, lush and lyrical, with that magical facility to hone in on the essence of a thought or emotion in a way that makes the reader think, Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like. The characters are pure Burke, as well. Burke follows four young friends from the tense moments that precede the War Between the States, through the first battles, to the arrival of Union soldiers in Louisiana and the beginnings of Reconstruction. Interestingly enough, the novel focuses on Burke’s own ancestor, Willie Burke, a poor but honorable Irish immigrant, and his friend, Robert Perry, wealthier, but also a good, admirable man simply trying to survive and do the right thing in a world gone mad. Despite their personal opposition to both the war and slavery, both men join the Confederate Army—to protect their homes and loved ones, and because that’s what honorable, brave men do when their leaders go to war.

Unusually for Burke, this book also features two strong female protagonists: Flower Jamison, the beautiful half-black slave fathered by the owner of Angola Plantation, Ira Jamison, and Abigail Dowling, a Massachusetts abolitionist with whom both Willie and Robert Perry are in love. I have read that White Doves at Morning is actually Burke’s favorite of his books, and he lists the strong female protagonists as one of the main reasons.

But apart from the protagonists, what would a Burke novel be without a wonderful assortment of villains? There’s Clay Hatcher and Todd McCain, of the “poor white trash”/Knights of the White Camellia stripe; the evil Rufus Atkins, overseer of Angola Plantation; and the wealthy Jamison, his evil flowing more from his self-obsession and weakness rather than from the inherent sociopathic tendencies that drive the others.

Writing about the Civil War is always tricky, but Burke approaches his topic unflinchingly; he never shrinks from portraying either the horrors of slavery, or the barbarity of war, or the horrors of what the Union soldiers did to the South. In so doing, he doubtless p’ed off a whole passel of both Southerners and Yankees, along with those still inclined to see war as a nation’s “finest hour.” Yet, oddly enough, this book is actually not as dark as I’ve found many of his crime novels.

I could go on and on, because I really, really enjoyed this book, but I’m writing this in a hurry. We’ve set Friday as the day we move my mom out of her own home and into our house. Hopefully by next week I’ll manage to get back into a more regular blogging schedule.

5 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

You've definitely made me want to read this one.

I don't know why, but my google reader just won't seem to capture your new blog posts. I've stopped going through my links every day and have depended on google reader to catch when folks post new, but it's not recognizing your blog even though I've already added it twice. Not sure why.

Steve Malley said...

I have Lay Down My Sword and Shield sitting on my 'special treats' shelf. Meantime, I've been on the lookout for this one; might have to be my next Amazon-ing!

liz fenwick said...

Ditoo what Charles said...... :-)

Steve Malley said...

I think the lack of googlerecognition might have something to do with the way Candy's blog mirrors out of her website. Or something like that.

I miss typewriters.

Anonymous said...

Just finished White Doves - really great. Have not determined if this is part non-fiction. What does anyone else think?