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.
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Simon & Schuster
May 27, 2002
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Excerpt from White Doves at Morning by James Lee Burke
The black woman's name was Sarie, and when she crashed out the door of the cabin at the end of the slave quarters into the fading winter light, her lower belly bursting with the child that had already broken her water, the aftermath of the ice storm and the sheer desolate sweep of leaf-bare timber and frozen cotton acreage and frost-limned cane stalks seemed to combine and strike her face like a braided whip.
She trudged into the grayness of the woods, the male shoes on her feet pocking the snow, her breath streaming out of the blanket she wore on her head like a monk's cowl. Ten minutes later, deep inside the gum and persimmon and oak trees, her clothes strung with air vines that were silver with frost, the frozen leaves cracking under her feet, she heard the barking of the dogs and the yelps of their handlers who had just released them.
She splashed into a slough, one that bled out of the woods into the dark swirl of the river where it made a bend through the plantation. The ice sawed at her ankles; the cold was like a hammer on her shins. But nonetheless she worked her way upstream, between cypress roots that made her think of a man's knuckles protruding from the shallows. Across the river the sun was a vaporous smudge above the bluffs, and she realized night would soon come upon her and that a level of coldness she had never thought possible would invade her bones and womb and teats and perhaps turn them to stone.
She clutched the bottom of her stomach with both hands, as though holding a watermelon under her dress, and slogged up the embankment and collapsed under a lean-to where, in the summer months, an overseer napped in the afternoon while his charges bladed down the cypress trees for the soft wood Marse Jamison used to make cabinets in the big house on a bluff overlooking the river.
Even if she had known the river was called the Mississippi, the name would have held no significance for her. But the water boundary called the Ohio was another matter. It was somewhere to the north, somehow associated in her mind with the Jordan, and a black person only needed to wade across it to be as free as the children of Israel.
Except no black person on the plantation could tell her exactly how far to the north this river was, and she had learned long ago never to ask a white person where the river called Ohio was located.
The light in the west died and through the breaks in the lean-to she saw the moon rising and the ground fog disappearing in the cold, exposing the hardness of the earth, the glazed and speckled symmetry of the tree trunks. Then a pain like an ax blade seemed to split her in half and she put a stick in her mouth to keep from crying out. As the time between the contractions shrank and she felt blood issue from her womb between her fingers, she was convinced the juju woman had been right, that this baby, her first, was a man-child, a warrior and a king.