White Doves at Morning: A Novel (Mass Market Paperback) Review

White Doves at Morning: A NovelThe arrival on bookshelves of anything written by James Lee Burke is a reason for celebration in my household-- as well it should be, for the man is arguably the finest living craftsman of eloquent prose in America today.At my own book signings, my oft-repeated line is that I'd read a phone book written by James Lee Burke.
But I have to confess, I hesitated before taking home a copy of WHITE DOVES IN THE MORNING, Burke's most recent release.After all, it features neither Dave Robicheaux nor Billy Bob Holland; it is not a reprinting of what I consider Burke's Golden Age of fiction, the stuff he wrote in the 1960s (which still staggers, with its literary mastery) before disappearing for almost two decades.
WHITE DOVES is, rather, a Civil War novel-- not surprising, in a way, to any reader of Burke's other fiction. His fascination with both combat in general and the Civil War in particular is evident in much of his writing.Nonetheless, for the reader eagerly awaiting the next return of Streak or Billy Bob, the thought of instead plunging into a... historical novel? ...might give pause to even the most ardent James Lee Burke fan.
It shouldn't.Within a half-dozen pages, it is evident that the master is in rare form here. Burke's lyrical, evocative prosequickly sweeps the reader into a story that is impossible to put down.
It helps that much of the setting is familiar ground: Burke's beloved Louisiana bayou country, specifically the New Iberia of 1861 - 65.The smells and sounds of what will, in a century or so, be Dave Robicheaux country, will be immediately recognized by any Burke aficionado-- a timeless land of live oaks, hanging air vines and mosquitoes buzzing in the marshland shadows.
It also helps that many of the character names we've become accustomed to in the Robicheaux chronicles are also present-- this time, as living characters who flesh out the fables and anecdotes and events that later will be passed down to Dave Robicheaux and from him, to we readers. We meet the Negro freeman and slave owner Jubal Labiche, whose skin color will make no difference to the soon-to-be-invading Yankees.We meet brothel owner Carrie LaRose and her brother, the brawling, pirate-minded Jean-Jacques LaRose, both shrewd Cajun entrepreneurs who deal in contraband and live by their own rough code of ethics. We meet Ira Jamison, whose sprawling Angola Plantation will later become Angola State Penitentiary.
And while we do, we realize that we already know their descendants, themselves familiar from the Burke/Robicheaux series: the twin Labiche daughters of another generation, one of whom will be executed for the murder of her molester; the LaRose descendant, elected Louisiana governor only to die in a last effort to save his doomed wife in a pyre that was the LaRose mansion; even the Angola Prison which is so often plays a key dark role in Burke's Robicheaux tales.
It is a masterful device, this intermingling of our recollections from other novels and other storylines, that in less capable hands could have failed miserably. But Burke handles it with ease, even to the point of centering the story on his own ancestor, one Willie Burke.
If there is any flaw in WHITE DOVES IN THE MORNING, it is the distinctly too-abrupt conclusion with which Burke has provided us as an epilogue. Here, in a departure from the seductive rhythms, eloquence and rich characterization which Burke uses elsewhere so well, the author merely ticks off, one by one, a digest of the ultimate fates of the characters. It is a decidedly less-than-satisfactory conclusion for the reader; worse, it does a disservice to the characters in this novel. Burke's skill has turned them into living people about whom we now care, and whom he appears now to casually discard.
And it is in this sole failing that WHITE DOVES IN THE MORNING gives every James Lee Burke fan a reason for optimism.
We want more than Burke's closing has left us-- far more than the brief, tantalizing, much too incomplete information on the balance of these characters, these lives. We want the author to take us back: back to antebellum New Iberia, back to these characters, back to this compelling chronicle of a time and a place that he has drawn so well.
I don't know if WHITE DOVES IN THE MORNING was intended as the first in a new, ongoing series; given the amazing talent that is James Lee Burke, I can only hope so.
Earl Merkel

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