Grit Lit Historical Fiction: James Lee Burke

The Matchmakers team welcomes guest blogger Michele, our Queen of Grit Lit! Michele writes:

Flags on the Bayou (published in 2023) is the first book that I’ve read by James Lee Burke, despite his enduring popularity since the 1987 debut of the Robicheaux detective series. While I love mysteries and thrillers, it’s more difficult for me to sink into detective stories, but I will always check out Southern grit lit set during the Civil War! It’s a stand-alone book too, unlike so many of Burke’s others, but in reading reviews of his various successful novels I see that he remains consistent in his themes of good versus evil and the belief that everyone has the capacity to choose between them. There is also a multitude of lively, complex, distinct characters and hilarious lines coming from some of the more rugged types that had me barking out with sudden laughter. I need more books like this on my reading list, and will now gladly give the Robicheaux series a try.

This historical fiction novel doesn’t focus so much on the war itself, in that none of the action takes place within battle and hardly any of the characters are soldiers. It’s more about the people affected by it in Southern Louisiana after the Union army’s conquest and occupation. There is a sheriff aptly described as a nincompoop. A beautiful, intelligent slave on the run who is searching for her young son. A feisty and fearless abolitionist who joins this search, and a lovelorn man who has disfigured himself in defense of her honor. A local constable who tries and fails miserably to uphold the law in a lawless land, plus the freed slave with whom he is besotted. In the form of Union soldier Captain Endicott we have a cruel bully who hides behind the corruption of undeserved power and authority. In the midst of it all barges a crass, cross-eyed, syphilitic, brawling meatface of a man storming through the landscape with his doltish renegade Confederate troops in tow.

Pockets of humor keep this story from becoming too dour, but there are many heavy, violent, and dark themes that give it a solid place on my list of Grit Lit titles. Having said that, I hope I don’t come across as a tragedy ghoul for saying that I very much enjoyed reading my first novel by James Lee Burke.

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