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FLAGS ON THE BAYOU
by James Lee Burke
Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2023
310 pages
$28.00
ISBN: 0802161693


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I began this book with some trepidation, since the publisher's description and early reviews all mentioned the cruelty and violence Burke describes in his story of the waning days of the Civil War. The narrative takes place in Louisiana, home to all manner of renegades, irregulars and others on both sides who seem to lack a sense of connection to the higher principles of the war. The main characters include a young, idealistic soldier haunted by his actions during war, an enslaved woman willing to risk everything to find her kidnapped son, an abolitionist schoolteacher who helps the enslaved woman escape. maniacal colonel for whom cruelty is the point, and a local sheriff who while slavecatching finds an unlikely soulmate.

Yes, the violence is omnipresent, and no character is immune, either to the giving or receiving end of horror. Neither is any character immune from the consequences of their actions; a strong karmic thread runs through the narrative, ensuring that those who deserve it ultimately receive their due, while those who cling to more idealistic principles are, at times after much travail, rewarded. This principle is embodied in the young enslaved woman Hannah Laveau (portrayed as a cousin to the famous New Orleans voodooist Marie Laveau), who seems to have an almost supernatural sense of connection to her god, enabling her to see the future, discern the nature of illnesses, and see into the hearts of those she encounters. Her belief that she will eventually find her son provides a strong through line in the narrative and keeps the violence at least somewhat in perspective.

James Lee Burke says in his afterword that he believes this to be his finest work. Not having read anything else by this author, I am not qualified to judge the truth of this statement. I do feel that Burke's evocative and complex prose in this novel deserves to be compared to some of America's greatest Southern writers, including William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. An example from the first chapter sets the stage:

"She walked away. The cannon had stopped. And the mallards resumed their quacking in the shelter of the swamp. The sun was an ember on the horizon, the air damp and as dark as a bruise. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. She seemed to have vanished in the gloom.

Burke's strong narrative, multiple points of view, and depth of character allows us to transcend specific events and concentrate on the larger picture he is presenting. Choosing to set the story in Louisiana, which seems far removed from the heart of the Civil War, allows us to examine war from a different perspective. In FLAGS ON THE BAYOU, the War Between the States is not a story of Union vs. Confederate. It is a story of the war taking place within each individual, and how they choose to respond to it. Like the Bayou itself, the human heart is murky, an unfathomable place, where some can, if they choose, escape and others remain lost.

Ellen Rosewall is Professor Emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where she taught and directed the Arts Management program for over 20 years. She is the author of both scholarly works and fiction. As an artist, her works have been exhibited at galleries throughout the Midwest. She is an avid reader, and is proud of her extensive collection of signed books.

Reviewed by Ellen Rosewall, October 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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