I was so delighted when I received an e-mail from Patti Abbott asking if I would like to do a post on a Friday's Forgotten Book. If you haven't seen these on other blogs, people (authors, bloggers, readers, etc) pick books that they feel might be "forgotten" and write a review to remind others about them. O.k., so I was thrilled to be asked and then I thought, "what in the world am I going to pick for this?" Because, of course, I want to make a good selection and not something everyone will think is silly or something that folks don't think has been forgotten. I had a couple of titles I was considering, but I also happened to have planned to go to the bookstore the very day I received the request from Patti. So, I'm tooling around in the store, checking everything out as usual, when I came across a copy of White Doves at Morning. I thought, "James Lee Burke wrote that, really?" And yes, everyone in the store could see the light bulb pop into the discussion bubble above my head! So, I do hope at least one person either didn't know Jim Burke wrote this book or else the fact had escaped them - they forgot! :)
White Doves at Morning is a historical fiction novel, published in 2002 and set around New Iberia, Louisiana, during the Civil War. Of course, since it occurs during the Civil War, it does not include Burke's reknowned Dave Robicheaux. Instead, this book focuses on Burke's ancestry. Willie Burke is the son of an Irish immigrant who joins the Confederate forces more out of fear than support for the "cause." Robert Perry, Burke's friend, is the son of slave owners and is a staunch supporter of Secussion.
Perry and Burke are both in love with Abigail Dowling, an abolitionist who came south from Massachusettes to help fight an outbreak of yellow fever. Abigail befriends Flower Jamison, the black slave daughter of Ira Jamison, the owner of Angola Plantation.
White Doves at Morning follows these characters during the Civil War and into the beginning of Reconstruction.
As with James Lee Burke's signature series, this book lulls the reader into another world through the colorful depiction of character, the vivid development of setting and the captivating plot. When closing the book, I would have to remind myself of the present day since I was so focused and present in the Nineteenth Century.
Since I do enjoy Jim Burke's Dave Robicheaux series, I was at first excited to learn about the background of New Iberia. I had no idea that Angola Prison Farm started out as a plantation. Ira Jamison had his sights on politics and aimed to benefit from the spoils of the war by turning his plantation into the prison farm. But it turns out that learning about the history of New Iberia was just a side benefit to reading this book.
Burke's characters are as rich and complex as Dave or Billy Bob Holland. I had the opportunity to briefly discuss this book with Jim Burke while I was reading, and he expressed pride in the characters of Abigail and Flower. And proud he should be. These two female characters are outstanding. Neither one is immune to pain and suffering, both are "outsiders" in their homes. Burke describes Abigail's feeling of being an outsider with such elegance, you can't help but want to befriend her and ease some of the lonliness:
Because there was no one solidly defined world she belonged to, no one family, no one person, she thought. She saw herself in an accurate way only twice during any given twenty-four-hour period, at twilight and at false dawn, when the world was neither night nor day, when shadows gave ambiguity a legitimacy that sunlight did not.
But Abigail and Flower are strong characters who rely on eachother and find ways to perservere.
Burke's villans are also dynamic characters. And much like the antogonists in his series novels, these villans make your skin crawl and remind you to check the locks at night when you go to bed.
'Colonel Jamison got one eye smaller than the other. It got a wet blue gleam in it. I didn't know what that look meant. It's possession, Miss Abigail. It's the control he got over other people that keeps him alive. Not love for no family, no cause, no little nigger baby who was found almost froze to death in a woods.'
From Ira Jamison at the top of the "food chain" to Rufus Atkins and Clay Hatcher, the preverbial "white trash," through them we see the birth of such groups as the Klu Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia.
And of course, it wouldn't be a James Lee Burke novel without an accute sense of place. Burke's amazing gift of transporting his readers to places completely unknown to them and making them feel like they've lived in the place all their lives is like no other. In this book, Burke is transporting his readers back in time, to a war we've all read about. But the realism puts you on the plantation fields, on the battlefields:
Each day or night a story passed on the river and Willie wondered why those who wrote about war concentrated on the battles and seldom studied the edges of grand events and the detritus that wars created: livestock with their throats slit, the swollen carcasses of horses gut-shot by grape or canister, a burning houseboat spinning around a bend at night, with no one aboard, the flames singeing the leaves in the gum trees along the bank, a naked lunatic drifting by on a raft, a cowbell hanging from his throat, a Bible open in his hand, yelling a sermon at the soldiers on the shore, a pimp from Baton Rouge tyring to put it to shore with a boatload of whores.
James Lee Burke has a talent unlike any other. Most of us have embraced Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland because of this talent. White Doves at Morning is a magnificient departure from these characters and time period, and definitely a book that we should not forget is part of Burke's great works.
**To see all of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Patti's blog.