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28 April 2014

James Lee Burke: Wayfaring Stranger

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Modern morality story of good and evil
This is a very different James Lee Burke (JLB) novel to his popular Dave Robicheaux detective thrillers. This is a book about good and evil in life seen through the eyes of Weldon Holland who grew up in Texas during the Depression, fought in WWII and returned home to try to make his fortune. It is written by a master storyteller whose prose, as usual, is remarkable and atmospheric.

Weldon's first brush with good and evil came when infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow drove onto his Grandfather's property. He was immediately captured by Bonnie's beauty, an impression that never left him, but things changed when they came back the next day after a bank robbery went bad. After one of them spat on his Grandfather as they drove away Weldon fired a shot through the car's back window. This first dramatic encounter with good and evil never left him.

During WWII Weldon saw real evil, especially when Second Lieutenant Holland and his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, were caught behind enemy lines and to escape boarded an empty freight train that took them to a death camp that had been abandoned by the fleeing SS. Among a pile of emaciated bodies Weldon finds 23 year old Rosita Lowenstein who is just alive. Rosita is Jewish and had grown up in Madrid and her parents were famous Communists who fought for the Republic. Weldon and Hershell carry Rosita as she slowly regains her strength while they find the way back to their lines. They get parted when Weldon goes back to the front but his blooming attraction for for Rosita sends him across Europe after the war to find her again. They marry and return to Texas.

After the war Hershell encourages Weldon to seek their fortunes in the oil business using a new pipeline welding process. There they find different forms of evil in the greed of unfettered capitalism, corruption, bigotry, anti-semitism, anti-communism and violence that attack them from all angles. It is a new battle where people don't just want your possessions, they want your soul. Hershell's wife, Linda Gail, aspires to be a Hollywood actress and encounters similar demons along the way that impact on all of their lives.

They meet Roy Wiseheart (the "Wayfaring Stranger"), an enigmatic wealthy person with many business connections who has a questionable history as a war hero. Roy "befriends" them although it is not clear if he is friend or enemy. Roy's wife Clara is a bitter and intolerant anti-Semite who tries to make Weldon and Rosita’s life a nightmare. His father, Dalton, a totally unscrupulous oil baron, whose business strategy with difficult people is "make them wince", does the same.

As always JLB's superb descriptive  prose is an outstanding feature of the book. The book is also filled with memorable characters. I especially liked Weldon's description of his commanding officer, Lloyd Fincher. "... Major Fincher is widely regarded as a dangerous idiot....someone said the German army has been trying to find him for years to award him the Iron Cross". Fincher is just as dangerous after the war when he offers to help Weldon's business.

The ending showed that under great stress good people will take action to protect themselves. It also demonstrates the power of love, the good that lies in most people, and that truth can sometimes win over direct action.

I am a fan of JLB and this is a landmark and very different novel by a master storyteller. It is part love story, part family/historical saga, part thriller and in total I consider it is a modern morality story. JLB is now 77 years old and I suspect that this is the book he has wanted to write for some time. It will certainly remain in my memory for some time. Highly recommended for discerning readers.  

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