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Friday, September 22, 2017

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

The opening of Bluebird, Bluebird grabbed my attention and my imagination immediately. 

We first meet Geneva Sweet as she snakes an orange extension cord through a cemetery, past the grave markers that read "Mayva Greenwood, Beloved Wife and Mother, May She Rest With Her Heavenly Father" and "Leland, Father and Brother in Christ" until she reaches her goal, the final resting place of her husband, Joe "Petey Pie" Sweet, whose monument reads "Husband and Father, and Forgive Him Lord, A Devil on the Guitar."

The extension cord and the transistor radio allow Geneva to play Joe some Muddy Waters.  

Geneva Sweet, almost seventy, is in many ways the heart of the novel.  She is not the protagonist; she is the core, the center that anchors a tiny community with deep roots in the past.

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger, and he is justifiably proud of the fact.  He loves Texas and the Rangers, but his pride in both doesn't mean Darren isn't aware of flaws in the justice system.

Raised by his twin uncles (Clay, a celebrated law professor and William, the first black Texas Ranger), Darren's background is privileged.  At the other end of the spectrum, Darren's mother is a poor alcoholic who is always cadging money. Darren's connections run the gamut of the socioeconomic spectrum. 

After a degree from Princeton and two years of law school, Darren's career path derails after the horrific event in 1998 in Jasper, Texas.  He drops out of law school, much to the disappointment of his wife and his Uncle Clay, and joins the Texas Rangers.  

While it is easy to love Darren, despite his ideals, he is as imperfect as any other human being, and in the midst of some serious problems at work and at home, he finds himself in the tiny town of Lark, Texas at the request of a friend in the FBI.  A black man has been found dead and the death receives only a cursory examination.  Then a few days later, a white woman is murdered.  

When he walks into Geneva Sweet's tiny establishment, Darren has no idea of how his perspective will undergo change.

Bluebird resonates on so many levels--from the piney woods setting in East Texas, to the strengths and frailties of the human condition, to the historic and current effects of race relations.

The novel is a love song to Texas in many ways, despite the acknowledged racism and the impact prejudice and discrimination have on the lives of both blacks and whites.  That, I think, is what makes this different from many novels that attempt to cover racism.  Attica Locke's roots (like those of her protagonist) are deep in the red soil of East Texas and despite all of the injustices, historic and contemporary, she loves the state and her own heritage.

The novel presents a thoughtful and humane look at the characters while still making the situations perfectly clear, never excusing and never despairing.  Locke examines the complexity of the events of a small town and leaves her protagonist uncomfortably aware of a script that diverges from his expectations. 

The prose and the images from this novel will remain with me.  Highly recommended.

From a Literary Hub interview with the author:
Attica Locke: I’m from an area that kisses the border of Louisiana. It’s infinitely more Southern than it is Southwestern. Is there still that Lonestar spirit? Yes, but it’s not big sky country, it’s the piney woods. They call a portion of it Big Thicket. It’s lumber country, woods and trees everywhere, creeks and bayous.
To me one of the great contradictions about East Texas is the sense of familiarity among black and white folks. Folks have been living up under each other for hundreds of years. There’s a familial quality to it. That doesn’t mean we’re all holding hands and singing cumbaya. But the people there are fundamentally intermixed—culturally and genetically. So there really is a sense of family.

(The piney woods and the names of some of the small towns along the Texas/Louisiana border are as familiar to me as the music that runs like a melody through the novel.)

NetGalley/Mulholland Books

Mystery/Crime.  Sept. 12, 2017.  Print length:  320 pages. 

14 comments:

  1. I have to be in the right mood for a book like this, but Geneva and Darren sound like great characters!

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    1. Attica Locke's prose and plotting are exceptional. The book was not what I expected from first to last. Sometimes uncomfortable, but always insightful, and beautifully written.

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  2. This one sounds so good to me! I'm definitely going to be checking it out.

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    1. There such a sense of place in this novel, and it certainly doesn't follow a typical template. It is an impressive examination of characters and motives in a way that makes you think.

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  3. I'm going to look for it at the library.

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  4. I lied...I just ordered it from Book Depository UK. I LOVE that service.
    xx, Carol

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  5. This sounds like a must read, beautifully written, thought provoking, and with a strong sense of place. I have seen this title around, but hadn't really known what it was about before now. I am glad you liked this one, Jenclair. I am adding it to my wish list.

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    1. It isn't always comfortable, but it is a thought-provoking novel. It will definitely be in my top 5 or so reads of the year.

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  6. Great review, Jenny. Definitely one I'll keep in mind. When we were on Ricky's "driving to state parks" birthday jaunt, we stayed in Jasper and drove through lots of Big Thicket country. It's not my favorite terrain but it's distinctive. I had never even heard the term before Ricky told me that's what people called it.

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    1. Bluebird is an excellent crime novel, but it is so much more. I will be thinking about this one for a long time. Most of Shelby County borders Toledo Bend and is just a little north of Jasper.

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  7. I'm really excited to read this one! I hear that Attica Locke is going to be at the Texas Book Festival - yay!

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    1. I hope you get a chance to see and hear Attica Locke, Iliana! And you will definitely be impressed with Bluebird, Bluebird, which is such a fine novel about race, crime, and family.

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