White Doves at Morning (2004)

by James Lee Burke

Famous for his detective novels set in Louisiana, James Lee Burke mines the familiar setting and an unfamiliar genre in White Doves at Morning. The historical novel features two of his own ancestors: his great-great-grandfather Robert Perry and great-great-uncle Willie Burke. Despite their service to the Confederate cause, they are admirable men doing their duty in Burke’s story, much of which he based on family history.

Perry is a model of Southern gentility and well-to-do son of a slave owner, and Burke is the hot-headed and generous-hearted son of a widowed boardinghouse owner in New Iberia. They are both sweet on Abigail Downing, a Quaker abolitionist from the North. Flower, a slave girl, is secretly tutored by Willie and, after emancipation, joins Abigail in operating a school for ex-slaves.

Plantation owner Ira Jamison, Flower’s father, and his overseer, Rufus Atkins, who killed Flower’s mother, provide the villainy, whether they’re commanding Willie’s regiment or, back in New Iberia, menacing the town. When Willie and Robert, who has been in a POW camp for most of the war, return to New Iberia, they find that Jamison is again exploiting black laborers, turning his plantation into a penitentiary, and that racist vigilantes, including Atkins and Jamison, have terrorized Flower and Abigail.

The title hardly hints of an upbeat book; white doves are birds who visit the graves of fallen soldiers. The story is steeped in violence and suffering. Yet, as in a detective story, the villains and the good guys and gals get what they deserve at the end. In a letter to readers, Burke says that the “spiritual love and selfless commitment” of the protagonists “represent to me what is the finest and most ennobling virtue in human beings.”


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