White Doves At Morning by James Lee Burke
Burke’s back, and what a return he makes! James Lee is at his very best in this scintillating chronicle of Louisiana before, during and after the US Civil War. It’s a story of family, friendship, love, loyalty, war and the horrors of a conflicted society rife with racism.
Willie Burke is a young man from New Iberia in Louisiana who has a great passion for life. Together with his friends, Robert Perry and Jim Stubbefield, he looks on in confusion as the tension increases between northern and southern states. Although a proud southerner, Willie abhors slavery and has secretly taught the beautiful mullata, Flower Jamison, how to read and write. This is an accomplishment for Flower that sets her apart from others of the long-suffering slave population, as well as elevating her above many of those from the poorer white and impoverished communities, including Cajuns.
Flower is the illegitimate child of Colonel Ira Jamison, a cold and calculating plantation owner with a desire only to satisfy his own lust and greed. Although Flower has her father’s name, she has never received his paternal acknowledgment, and this snub sits hard with her. Flower is a formidable young woman who refuses to assume the role of chattel to anyone, either white or black.
As a means of standing up to the prevailing racism and slavery still extant in Louisiana, Flower assists the Underground Railroad as they smuggle slaves from New Iberia to relative freedom in the north. It is through this work that Flower befriends the exceptionally beautiful and altruistic Abigail Dowling, a Quaker from Boston. Abigail first arrived in Louisiana as a nurse to help combat an outbreak of Yellow Fever. She decided to remain in the region to work in helping the slaves escape their bonds. Though educated and refined, Abigail becomes a sturdy lynch-pin for Flower, Willie and Robert who all love her in their own ways. The ruthless Colonel Jamison also desires Abigail and is incensed when she rebuffs his sexual advances. The tension in this dynamic matches that of the feuding states.
And so it is that war breaks out and the three friends, Willie, Jim and Robert make their uncertain way into bloody and catastrophic battle that shapes their hearts, minds and lives. Neither of the three support slavery but they fight in opposition to the Federal intervention in the southern states. They soon become horribly aware of the ultimate injustice of any Confederate victory as well as realizing the futility of such wars.
As the men fight and bleed, Abigail and Flower battle to help the casualties, all the while struggling to assist slaves in their flight. But the war is relentless and cares little for love and friendship as people are lost, some found, some not. As the conflict draws to a bitter end, the bedraggled remnants of the Confederate Army form into racist groups such as The White League and The Knights of the White Camellia. These terrorist groups continue to wreak havoc upon the freed black population, as well as targeting those whites who would accept and assist the black people as equals. Willie, Abigail and Flower all find themselves at the receiving end of this brutality but steadfastly refuse to break. But the conditions that brought them all together might be what eventually breaks them apart. The internecine warring cannot continue.
White Doves At Morning is a wonder. It is, as can be expected from Burke, a beautifully written piece of literature. The prose is pure poetry. It can be brutal when called for, but is generally penned in such a sensitive and enchanting way as to cause the reader to go over passages again merely to savour the words. A good example of this is thus;
‘She saw herself in an accurate way only twice during any given twenty-four hour period, at twilight and at false day, when the world was neither night nor day, when shadows gave ambiguity a legitimacy that sunlight did not’
The character list for this novel is tremendous. As well as the aforementioned personalities, there is also the slave master, Rufus Atkins and his equally brutal acolyte, Clay Hatcher. Neither man would win an award from Amnesty International (although Donald Trump might give them a medal or two). There is also the embittered, racist shopkeeper, Todd McCain, rebuffed in his advances to Flower and now determined to hurt as many former slaves as possible.
With the inclusion of the brothel madame, Carrie LaRose, and her smuggler brother, Jean Jacques, we get the pleasure of new layers of an evolving and profound plot. Throw in the stoic drummer boy, Tighe McGuffy, carried from the battlefield by Willie, and you have all the ingredients of a literary masterpiece.
Honestly, if Rebel Voice was to recommend one book for you to read this month, or the next, then White Doves at Morning would be it. The sweep of this story will take you off your feet. The protagonists will captivate, educate and indoctrinate any reader into the wonders of James Lee Burke. The pace is perfect, and the settings – as is the case with all Burke novels – are vividly described to the point whereby the reader can hear what the characters hear, and smell the world they step through.
The plot wends its way through the many tragic and turbulent aspects on life in Louisiana at that time. It is a ride and a half with a conclusion that satisfies. Interestingly, like Steinbeck, Burke appears to have opted to include actual antecedents from the Burke family history. Rebel Voice understands that both Willie Burke and Robert Perry were real people, the former being related to the author himself (you probably guessed that much though).
Sult scale rating: 9.5 out of 10. Exciting, emotive, evocative, poignant, tragic, uplifting, amusing and heartbreaking and that’s only the first two lines. This novel is yet another helping of artistic genius by an author with a penchant for producing among the greatest novels of them all. Don’t miss it.
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