Review

White Doves at Morning

by James Lee Burke

The
creator of David Robiceaux and Billy Bob Holland returns to
historical fiction in a work set in Civil War-era Louisiana.

James Lee Burke has reached that stage where his name has become
synonymous with his most successful literary creation --- David
Robiceaux. Burke's Robiceaux novels have now spawned imitators and
fans eagerly await the next installment in the series. In some
instances, these fans become bitterly disappointed when a work
bearing Burke's name on the spine does not contain a Robiceaux
story therein. The series is so engrossing and well done that it is
easy to forget that Burke's earliest writing dealt with other,
occasionally historical, plots. In WHITE DOVES AT MORNING, he
returns to that genre.

WHITE DOVES AT MORNING is a stand-alone novel, thus giving Burke
freedom with his characters that he does not entirely have with the
Robiceaux books or the Billy Bob Holland novels. One reads WHITE
DOVES AT MORNING with no expectations other than that there will be
a well-told, engrossing story. Burke has taken this freedom and run
with it and, in the process, has created what might well be his
finest work to date.

WHITE DOVES AT MORNING is set primarily in rural Louisiana during
the Civil War and early Reconstruction. The primary characters are,
as we are told, on the inside front cover, ancestors of Burke,
though it is not immediately clear how much of the tale told within
is family lore and how much is torn from the whole cloth of Burke's
imagination. There is in all probability a healthy mix of both.
Despite the change in subject matter, Burke continues the theme
that runs through the Robiceaux novels --- that the rich are evil
and can only transcend their circumstance with a healthy dose of
guilt. This worldview, alas, is wearing rapidly thin --- there is
no inherent evil in wealth, any more than there is a particular
inherent nobility in poverty --- and Burke's incessant dwelling on
the premise almost distracts from the beauty of his writing.
Similarly, his presentation of the cause of the Civil War --- that
it was fought over the issue of slavery --- is worse than
simplistic; it is simply incorrect. The magnitude and beauty of
Burke's writing, however, is such that one can easily suspend
disbelief when encountering these issues and appreciate the beauty
of this work.

The beauty and contrast within WHITE DOVES AT MORNING lie primarily
in its characters. Robert Perry and Willie Burke, despite their
disparities of background and opinion, join the Confederate Army
while not sacrificing their principles, as well as their commitment
to Abigail Dowling, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had come to
Louisiana several years previously to aid in the battle against
yellow fever. Burke also forms a friendship, unlikely for that time
and place, with Flower Jamison, a beautiful young slave who is
owned by Ira Jamison, owner of Angola Plantation and, though he
refuses to admit it, Flower's father. Burke secretly teaches Flower
how to read and write, an act that places both of them in danger.
Flower becomes the catalyst from which much of WHITE DOVES AT
MORNING proceeds. She finds herself the object of desire of Rufus
Adkins, the overseer of her father's plantation and a source of
unspeakable evil. Adkins and Burke, cast together in combat during
the Civil War, are uneasy comrades. They wear the same uniform, but
are by no means on the same side.

It is this conflict, woven throughout WHITE DOVES AT MORNING, that
is the ultimate manifestation of Burke's ability to present through
implication the complexity of relationships against a backdrop of
social and moral difficulty. There are also passages here which
bring to mind some of the best work of Cormac McCarthy,
particularly when the author describes the horror of battle and its
physical and emotional aftermath. The end of the war, however, does
not herald the end of the terror. Burke, Flower, and Dowling find
themselves caught between the conquering army of the North and the
dreaded night riders --- the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the
White Camellia of which Adkins, ever the lowest common denominator
opportunist, is a member.

WHITE DOVES AT MORNING ultimately demonstrates the rippling effect
that an act of bravery and simple kindness --- in this instance,
Burke's instruction to Flower in reading and writing --- can have
upon people over time. Fans of Robiceaux who eschew this work
simply because their favorite Cajun detective is not its prominent
feature will only cheat themselves. At the same time, those who are
unfamiliar with Burke's work will find WHITE DOVES AT MORNING far
more than an introduction to a new author. This work, in time, will
perhaps become the most highly regarded of all of Burke's
efforts.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011

White Doves at Morning
by James Lee Burke

  • Publication Date: April 27, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Pocket Star
  • ISBN-10: 0743466624
  • ISBN-13: 9780743466622