From chaos, violence comes a brilliant novel

Bob Moyer reviews the latest novel by one of his favorite authors. One note: Despite what Bob writes, not all Southerners called the conflict of the 1860s the War Between the States. Some – I think particularly of an elderly woman who owned a historic house in downtown Charleston that a group of graduate students I was with toured 30-some years ago. To her, it was “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FLAGS ON THE BAYOU. By James Lee Burke. Atlantic Monthly Press. 308 pages. $28.

James Lee Burke is not just from Southern Louisiana, he is of Southern Louisiana. New Iberia, to be exact, where he has set his magnificent novel about the War Between the States (note to northern readers — Southerners, even a certain editor, do not refer to the Civil War). It’s 1863, and the Union “blue bellies” have pushed the now-ragged Confederate forces across Louisiana toward Texas. Yet all the forces are in close proximity. An Army of irregulars, known as the “Red Legs,” bivouac just a couple of plantations down from the Union forces headed by General Banks, known ”…for his incompetence and the record number of cotton bales he has kept safe and sound for businessmen everywhere.”  All forces plunder the local plantations and farms, including taking two cows from the widow Ellen Lee Burke. The setting is a maelstrom of violence.

Into this chaos, the author weaves plot lines of a diverse cast of characters, each lending their distinctive voice to the narrative. Slave Hannah Laveau escapes to avoid a murder charge, and to find her infant son, lost at Shiloh. She is aided by Miss Florence Milton, Boston schoolteacher and abolitionist. They are, according to Constable Pierre Cauchon, “…members of a special group who refuse to flinch, the kind who don’t consider bravery a virtue… The irony is they don’t know how brave they are.”

Cauchon is reluctantly on their heels, a disabled soldier consigned to keep order in the Negro community with little salary, no budget,and harassment from all sides. He in turn tries mightily to avoid the attentions of Darla Babineaux, a freed slave who stayed on the plantation, where the two have sat “…cracking pecans while the western skies were aflame with a dying culture that no one can explain.” It’s another losing battle for him.

Two of Burke’s battle pilgrims speak in eloquent voices of the connection between the past and our present turmoil, observations that resonate. The Red Leg commander Colomel Carleton Hayes, his face afflicted with “…the work of the devil and the wenches in his hire,” observes “a battlefield is a mortician’s delight, a tool used to reduce the herd, and every poppy on it is nursed by a corpse.”  Dr. Wade Lufkin, his own face destroyed by a disastrous duel, speaks of the inevitability of war: “With time, atrocities will happen and one side will provoke the other and each will take revenge in turn, and we will go home with secrets we share with no one. That’s the reality of war, not the quixotic babbling of poets.” The author never leaves the past in the past.

With a balance of voices and action, Burke guides his crew across battlefields, into the swamp, through the hands of slave catchers and other adversity to salvation. They end up in an unearthly setting, one that will render the reader unable to look at the work of a certain French artist the same way ever again.

All of this occurs in Burke’s brilliant prose. Phenomenal phrases pop up on every other page. Burke does not describe events, he embeds them in the setting. He shows us Darla Babineaux, “…the sunlight through the oak trees is shifting on her skin and hair and clothes like a net of gold coins.”  During battle, “The Yankees explode another shell overhead, the echo rolling across the land, the sunlight and every leaf trembling in the pecan tree next to the farmhouse.” Once again, James Lee Burke demonstrates why he is one of America’s best novelists.

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