“White Doves at Morning” is James Lee Burke’s foray into Civil War fiction. It does not star the ancestors of Dave Robicheaux, but it does have some of Burke’s relatives and is set in the same area of Southern Louisiana. It also displays his trademark style of writing and his distinctive characters. The book covers the period of the Civil War and ends during Reconstruction.
The book opens with a powerful passage involving an escaped pregnant slave who is being tracked. She hides the baby before being caught and brutally beaten to death by one of the novels villains – Rufus Atkins. Atkins is your typical redneck plantation overseer and as though he is not villainous enough, he comes packaged with his toady Clay Hatcher. The baby is found and raised by another slave. Flower later finds out that her father is her master Ira Jamison. She develops a love-hate relationship with him.
The book leaps from the opening scene to 1861 and we meet the main character Willie Burke (an ancestor of the author). He is poor, idealistic, and impetuous. Although not a slaveowner (in fact, he has taught Flower to read) and not a fan of secession, he goes off to war. One of his officers is, of course, Atkins who he hates. He participates in the Battle of Shiloh. Burke describes the battlefield thusly:
“The ground was littered with Springfield rifle muskets, boxes of percussion caps, ramrods, haversacks, canteens, torn cartridge papers, entrenching shovels, kepis, bloody bandages, bayonets, cloth that had been scissored away from wounds, boots and shoes, newspaper and magazine pages that men had used to clean themselves.”
It’s a shame his description of the battle does not match his description of the things they carried. When Willie’s friend Jim is killed carrying the flag, Willie goes Rambo running through the forest wreaking revenge on any blue-belly that crosses his path. We get no clear conception of what is happening in the battle. The book is definitely not for readers who want a taste of Civil War combat.
Meanwhile, back in normally sleepy little New Iberia, the heroine Abigail (an abolitionist from New England!) is helping the Underground Railroad at great risk since she is the first person anyone thinks of for being involved in this type of activity. She hooks up with a pirate-like Cajun named Jean-Jacques who also deals in gun running. Ira Jamison moves in and out of the book as one of the more mobile individuals in the South. He is in a New Orleans hospital as a prisoner of war being nursed by the conflicted Flower when he escapes with the help of cronies who murder a nice Yankee guard. He goes on to convert his plantation to Angola Prison, still finding time to visit New Iberia to woo Abigail. It’s a small world for these characters as their orbits intersect throughout the book.
Willie’s unit returns to the New Iberia area and tries to stop the Union campaign in the area, unsuccessfully. The wounded hero is rescued from a pile of dead bodies by Abigail. Later, they make love, but the relationship goes nowhere. It is one of several dead-ends in the book. Flower gets raped by thugs working for Atkins. This leads to the following florid passage: “Since the rape her anger had become her means of defense and survival. She fed it daily so it lived inside her like a bright, clean flame that she would one day draw upon, like a blacksmith extracting a white-hot iron from a furnace. It was her anger and the possibilities of revenge that allowed her to avoid a life of victimhood.” Did you catch the fact that Burke managed to get two similes in one sentence? He is the king of similes!
When the war ends, Willie returns as does his friend Robert who spend part of the war in a prison camp, but strangely his story was not worthy of inclusion. Flower and Abigail open a school for black kids earning little more than dirty looks and some threatened violence from Klanesque yahoos. Burke throws in some titillation with the jilted Jamison outing Abigail as a lesbian in a news rag. The book ends with a twist that is unsatisfying and contrived.
“White Doves at Morning” is a misfire. I do like the writing style of Burke. He can be a bit florid. For example, here is how he describes the death of a eccentric painter.
“Just before the first Federal troops reached New Iberia, he gave all his paintings to his slaves, put on a tailored gray officer’s uniform he had worn as a member of the Home Guards, then mounted a horse and charged down the bayou road, waving a sword over his head, straight into an artillery barrage that blew him and his uniform into pieces that floated down as airily as flamingo feathers on the bayou’s surface.”
That is one sentence and one hell of a sentence! I happen to enjoy his similes. I looked forward to the word “like” (which occurred a lot in this book).
There are several disappointing things about the novel. Some potentially interesting characters like Jean-Jacques and Robert disappear for long stretches. Too much time is spent on the impossibly pure Flower and Abigail. The looming threats of violence seldom come to fruition. The combat scenes are lacking. Two of the most despicable villains do not get their just rewards.
In conclusion, Burke fans or fans of his style will probably enjoy this book. However, as a Civil War novel, it is not compelling. I was disappointed with it even though I live in New Iberia. It is a PG-rated soap opera set in the Civil War and Reconstruction.