Most readers looking for a book by James Lee Burke go to library or bookstore with a Dave Robicheaux or Billy Bob Holland story in mind. Robicheaux, the police officer from New Iberia, Louisiana was first introduced in the 1987’s The Neon Rain and readers met Billy Bob Holland for the first time in the 1997 Cimarron Rose. Of Burke’s twenty-nine novels and story collections it might be a difficult task to pick out one that hasn’t excited a legion of fans and a host of critics. Whether set in Louisiana, Texas or Montana, the writer illuminates backgrounds and settings that drip with authenticity, characters of marvelous complexity and stories that enfold the reader at once.
In 2002 Burke published a different kind of novel, one based on the history of Louisiana as well as the story of people in his own family, namely his great great-grandfather and an uncle of the same period, 1837-1868. The novel is White Doves at Morning and tells the story of people and conditions in New Iberia, Louisiana during the years of the Civil War and afterward. The story also takes us to the battleground horror of Shiloh and the Shenandoah Valley, where the nightmare of battle reminds the reader of images from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.
Catalyst for much of the drama in White Doves at Morning is the character Flower Jamison, a slave born in the book’s first pages, a child fathered by the wealthy plantation owner, Ira Jamison. This connection and its complexities provide much of the heat that fires the developing story. Flower grows into a young woman unlike the stereotypical plantation washwoman, though her job is exactly that. Against all custom and law, Flower learns to read and write, taught by Willie Burke, another of the story’s main characters, who along with his good friend Robert Perry becomes enchanted by the abolitionist Abigail Dowling, a northerner come to south Louisiana several years earlier to work as a nurse. As in most books by James Lee Burke courage and moral integrity form a thematic backbone for his characters, whether those qualities are lacking or in abundance. Flower and Abigail are confronted by the moral degradation and evil that rise not only from the institution of slavery, but from the abuse of those wanting to turn a lost cause into another kind of corrupt power. Willie Burke and Robert Perry are the other side of the coin and offer example of southerners who lived with different ideals.
One of the more interesting historical elements in White Doves at Morning is the story of how Louisiana’s infamous Angola Penitentiary came to be. Before the Civil War it was a large plantation growing mostly sugar cane. After the war and unable to rely upon slave labor to work his fields, the owner turned his plantation into a place for housing convicts who were then rented out for labor, either government labor or private.
For the first sixty-four pages I read this book wondering several times where the title came from, since little of the story was as bucolic and lyrical as the title implied. The answer comes on page sixty-five when a group of confederate soldiers sit in firelight on the eve of battle singing…
“White doves come at morning
Where my soldier sleeps in the ground.
I placed my ring in his coffin,
The trees o’er his coffin have all turned brown.”
It is a traditional song and a melancholy one, the doves more of an ill-omen than heralds of a new dawn. One soldier apart from the singers yells out, “Put a stop to that kind of song!”
If you’ve never read Burke, give yourself a treat.
For more on this writer refer back to a post from last July.