White Doves at Morningby Published 27 Apr 2004
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For years, critics have acclaimed the power of James Lee Burke's writing, the luminosity of his prose, the psychological complexity of his characters, the richness of his landscapes. Over the course of twenty novels and one collection of short stories, he has developed a loyal and dedicated following among both critics and general readers. His thrillers, featuring either Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux or Billy Bob Holland, a hardened Texas-based lawyer, have consistently appeared on national bestseller lists, making Burke one of America's most celebrated authors of crime fiction.
Now, in a startling and brilliantly successful departure, Burke has written a historical novel -- an epic story of love, hate, and survival set against the tumultuous background of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
At the center of the novel are James Lee Burke's own ancestors, Robert Perry, who comes from a slave-owning family of wealth and privilege, and Willie Burke, born of Irish immigrants, a poor boy who is as irreverent as he is brave and decent. Despite their personal and political conflicts with the issues of the time, both men join the Confederate Army, choosing to face ordeal by fire, yet determined not to back down in their commitment to their moral beliefs, to their friends, and to the abolitionist woman with whom both have become infatuated.
One of the most compelling characters in the story, and the catalyst for much of its drama, is Flower Jamison, a beautiful young black slave befriended, at great risk to himself, by Willie and owned by -- and fathered by, although he will not admit it -- Ira Jamison. Owner of Angola Plantation, Ira Jamison is a true son of the Old South and also a ruthless businessman, who, after the war, returns to the plantation and re-energizes it by transforming it into a penal colony, which houses prisoners he rents out as laborers to replace the slaves who have been emancipated.
Against all local law and customs, Flower learns from Willie to read and write, and receives the help and protection of Abigail Dowling, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had come south several years prior to help fight yellow fever and never left, and who has attracted the eye of both Willie and Robert Perry. These love affairs are not only fraught with danger, but compromised by the great and grim events of the Civil War and its aftermath.
As in all of Burke's writings, White Doves at Morning is full of wonderful, colorful, unforgettable villains. Some, like Clay Hatcher, are pure "white trash" (considered the lowest of the low, they were despised by the white ruling class and feared by former slaves). From their ranks came the most notorious of the vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia. Most villainous of all, though, are the petty and mean-minded Todd McCain, owner of New Iberia's hardware store, and the diabolically evil Rufus Atkins, former overseer of Angola Plantation and the man Jamison has placed in charge of his convict labor crews.
Rounding out this unforgettable cast of characters are Carrie LaRose, madam of New Iberia's house of ill repute, and her ship's-captain brother Jean-Jacques LaRose, Cajuns who assist Flower and Abigail in their struggle to help the blacks of the town.
With battle scenes at Shiloh and in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that no reader will ever forget, and set in a time of upheaval that affected all men and all women at all levels of society, White Doves at Morning is an epic worthy of America's most tragic conflict, as well as a book of substance, importance, and genuine originality, one that will undoubtedly come to be regarded as a masterpiece of historical fiction.
White Doves at Morning Reviews
JLB is a writer I return to time and again. He's known primarily for his crime fiction series featuring sometime cop Dave Robicheaux, based in New Iberia, Louisiana, but also for a group of novels featuring members of the Holland family. His writing is literary and his style brutal; his characters are bold and bad and even those on the right side of the law tend to be seriously flawed. It really is work of the highest order with complex plots and obscure words that drive me to park a dictionary at my side whenever I pick up one of his books. I love it.
Here Burke does something different, he delivers a historical novel set in Louisiana at the time of the American Civil War. A New Iberian himself, this is home territory to the author and to personalise it even further he includes two of his ancestors as leading players in the story. Robert Perry and Willie Burke are destined to fight on the losing side and we follow both characters as well as a local slave owner (plus his evil sidekick), his illegitimate daughter – the mother being one of his own slaves - and a Quaker abolitionist. Conflicts are everywhere and Burke revels in the opportunity to demonstrate his full range of insults and slurs.
This is a book I've tried to read before, three times in fact. It's probably the only book Burke’s written that I've struggled to get into. I think it’s possibly down to the nature of the tale itself (historical fiction is not my normal fare) but also the fact that it does start slowly and introduces a whole group of characters early on. It can be a bit confusing if, like me, you’re not strong on holding onto multiple plot lines. They're all closely related, of course, and many will find this a piece of cake. For me, a contributory factor is that it’s unremittingly depressing - there's no good news here: for the most part it's just full of conflict, death and destruction. There is a love story of sorts too, but this is pretty much swallowed up by the bigger story.
As I would have expected, the book is very well written and has real power. It does provide a real flavour of the time and place, with brilliantly descriptive passages and savagely written battle scenes. I’m glad I got around to finishing it – but it's not my favourite JLB.
I loved this book and would recommend if you like to read about the Civil War period and like a little grit. I feel that this was a true depiction of the life and times of all the people in that period. Not just the Southerners, but the Northerners as well. I felt moved by some of the words in this book. To me he writes with words of a poet and very literary in nature. It is even quite possible you may need a dictionary at times, but if read in the context can surely figure it out.
I have read most of the books that James Lee Burke has written and I think this is one of my favorites. Very poignant, and left me with a feeling of woe. I know from reading this book that these were not easy times and everyone worked for what they owned, even those that came from affluent parents. Because it appears everything was taken from them and they literally had to start over. A very interesting period in our history. I am appalled at the conditions of that time and am glad I live in a more tolerant period.
I am giving this 5 out of 5 stars. I feel that it is one of the best books I have read so far this year.
Superb; wonderful writing; tales of suffering from the South. How long does it take for people to realize the atrocities committed and those that lie in the future. I read out loud the first two paragraphs to a writing group I lead last night; good writing, gripping and tragic story, but humor also; Willie incredible character! All good. Read in one sitting
Another good book by America's best writer. Burke examines the Civil War and its immediate aftermath through they eyes of some of his relatives and some other very well drawn characters. I suspect most of the book is fiction, but the wrap up of what the characters did in later life is probably mostly true. Highly recommended, especially to Burke lovers.
White Doves at Morning is a violent, epic saga about a bunch of lives irrevocably changed by the civil war. Burke maybe writing historical fiction instead of crime but he wisely sets it in Louisiana. Burke makes Louisiana come alive in a way few authors can. He describes war ravaged Louisiana in a way that carries the weight of the written word, captures the marvel of the movies and corresponds to the subtleties of still lifes.
Burke has never shied away from depicting the debilitating effects of violence, this time he has an even bigger canvas to paint them on. It is not an easy read; there is a constant threat of violent deaths, lynchings and other depravities. Burke scoffs at the idea of any side holding the moral high ground in war and posits both the Union and Confederate armies were made of same two groups - the leadership made of cruel, insecure men and cannon fodder made of misguided youth joining it in search of purpose.
The writing as always in Burke books is exceptionally strong. He understands human nature and has an ability to strip it into basic elements that are never likeable but always true reflections of who we all are deep down. The writing mutates constantly. It maybe as tender as the affectionate caress of a new lover or as volatile as a gut punch from an old foe.
In most Burke books (be it his crime series or his Pulitzer nominated The Lost Get Back Boogie) by the time one meets the protagonist, they are already beset with issues arising from their tempers and/or addiction. It is much easier to relate with the protagonists here, they are unspoilt and innocent. It is the war that corrupts them. It almost makes a mockery of the beliefs held by Willie Burke and Abigail Dowling who support opposing sides in the struggle but both believe passive opposition is a possibility. The best character however is not one of those two but black slave girl Flower who is a victim to every indignity imaginable but still resolute enough to not lose her dreams or herself. Burke uses multiple protagonists after a long time and female protagonists for the first time, he does justice to both. Ira Jamison is another great Burke villain combining cruelty and civility in equal measures. Other supporting characters are also richly drawn.
The narrative is usually tighter in his crime novels but that's not a big issue. Burke is much more ambitious here tracing the helplessness of slave laborers in antebellum South, the fall of the South, the inadequacy of the Northern government in postbellum South, and the slow rise of Ku Klux Klan while still managing to tell interesting personal stories of a bunch of diverse characters. The bigger problem is the ending, it is abrupt. The epilogue mentions the characters were real. So maybe the ending respects that but more dramatic liberty could have been taken, specially regarding the conflict between the protagonists and Rufus Atkins.
This tale is so cinematic that in a perfect world White Doves at Morning would do for Burke what The Shawshank Redemption or The Body (Stand by me is the movie version) did for Stephen King. That is convince everyone that pigeonholing this great writer as just a genre author is a great disservice to all fans of good fiction. Rating - 4/5.