Like many suspense and thriller novelists, James Lee Burke has a following of fans that love his work. He’s written over thirty novels in his life, twenty of them dedicated to the Dave Robicheaux detective series. He’s been awarded fellowships for creative fiction, won the Edgar Award twice and been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. In his new novel, Burke takes a bit of a different, but well intentioned direction. Instead of sticking strictly with the suspense genre, he strays into the historical fiction realm, with fantastic results. The story we’re being treated to this year is a coming-of-age one about a young man named Weldon Holland (yes, related to Hackberry and Billy Bob) who upon discovering Bonnie and Clyde in Texas during the early 1930’s, quickly spirals into his own life which might end up taking a similar path.
Burke’s new novel, Wayfaring Stranger, starts just as the Dust Bowl era is bearing down on the United States. Sixteen year old Weldon Holland (grandson of Burke recurring character Hackberry Holland) comes across Bonnie and Clyde as they trespass on his grandfather’s land one night, presumably either on their way from and to another one of their infamous bank robberies. A passenger in the car is impolite to Weldon’s grandfather and as a result he puts a bullet in the back window of their car as they make a getaway. Little does Weldon know that the memory of that old Confederate with white walled wheels would haunt him for the rest of his life. Fast forward ten years and Weldon finds himself on Omaha Beach, making his way to the Battle of the Bulge, which he narrowly escapes. During his treacherous time in the forested Ardennes region of Europe, Weldon meets Rosita Lowenstein, who would later become his wife and move to America with him. When Weldon, Rosita and his forme squadmate Hershel finally make it back to the States, the two men pair up and enter the oil business which is just gearing up to explode. Using machines that formerly made Nazi tanks, Hershel devises a way to make fantastic welds for oil pipeline, cementing their name in the oil business as the best. However, this is about the time they meet another couple named the Wiseheart’s. The husband, Roy, actually served during WWII in the South Pacific and his wife just happens to be an anti-semitic, which is great for Rosita who is a Jewish-Spanish supposed Communist. Soon it becomes the Wiseheart’s mission to destroy Weldon and Hershel’s business and their personal lives to boot.
Burke has written some thirty something novels in his career, with twenty of them solely dedicated to the Dave Robicheaux series. Wayfaring Stranger, however is a different sort of James Lee Burke fare. The novel is one of a sprawling nature. It takes it’s main character from his teenage years, through an incredibly tough campaign in Europe during WWII, only to face the same battle back in his home country. Weldon Holland starts out as an innocent teenager, shielded by his grandfather from the wild parts of Texas and turns into a man who gets what he wants, when he wants it. Burke’s new novel isn’t that unlike his previous ones in that it does have a thriller/suspense flair to it, but at the same time it’s a very fine historical novel in it’s own right. It covers the early 1930’s bank robbery scene in Texas, moves to D-Day and the Nazi occupation of Europe and back to Texas during the beginning of the oil boom. In these places too, Burke writes with vivid imagery, crisp details and ends up painting a painstakingly accurate portrait of the times he’s actively portraying. Wayfaring Stranger starts out as a story of a boy discovering Bonnie and Clyde and evolves into a massive story about that boy growing up and discovering the important things in life and how to get them.
Whether or not Burke sees Wayfaring Stranger as a gamble of a novel because of its historical content, it doesn’t matter because it’s a complete success. Weldon’s story as he comes of age, goes off to war and returns with his bride is one that the reader can enjoy throughout it’s entirety. Burke weaves in plot details that stick with the reader through the whole book, foreshadowing details he left on the first few pages. The historical content and fictionalization of one Texas man’s life is a completely enthralling read and should be considered by anyone who loves historical fiction.
Rating: 9 out of 10 – Wayfaring Stranger isn’t the normal James Lee Burke novel, but should be considered by all his life long fans. Readers who have never heard of him may want to add this to their reading list, especially if they even have a minor interest in historical fiction. What at first reads like a suspense novel, quickly turns into a fine piece of historical fiction literature with fully fleshed out and lovable characters.