Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (S&S, July 15th, 2014)-I shamefully admit that it’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by the wonderful James Lee Burke. It’s all good, though, because Wayfaring Stranger has reignited my love for his books, and I’ll be devouring the rest of them soon enough. Wayfaring Stranger could be called a thriller, I suppose. It’s paced like one at times. But, oh gosh, it’s so much more. Weldon Holland, grandson of Hackberry, is only 16 in 1934 when Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker come blazing through the Holland land after orchestrating the prison break at Eastham. Insouciant in their 1932 Chevy Confederate, they’re a source of instant fascination for young Weldon, especially the feral eyed Bonnie Parker with her beret titled over one eye. In a separate encounter a short time later, perhaps thinking he was protecting his grandfather, Weldon shoots his .44 into the back of the Chevy as it flees. This would prove to be a defining moment in his life. Then we move on to Holland’s stint in WWII in which he and his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, rescue a lovely woman, Rosita, from an SS death camp. Holland subsequently marries Rosita and when Pine tracks him down with a claim of a pipe weld that would never break, and the birth of their company, The Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, in 1946. The following years are good for them, but after a business venture goes south, they have no choice but to accept a loan from an untrusted source, and when Pine’s wife, the spirited and wayward Linda Gail, is “discovered” and introduced to the glittering gutters of Hollywood, it kicks off a chain of events that threaten everything they’ve built and everyone they love.
If you enjoy character driven sagas with plenty of kick, you’ll love Wayfaring Stranger, and if you’re already a fan of Burke’s work, it’s a given. Weldon Holland is a hero, but it’s his quiet way, loyalty, and deep seated morality that make him a standout. His fierce, fierce love for Rosita is enough to make a girl swoon. Enjoy that, because you won’t see me write that very much. I’m not much of a swooner, but good grief, the things he writes about Rosita are beautiful, and he respects and cherishes her in a time when women were sometimes not very respected, at least for anything other than how they looked. Lest you think that Weldon is the strongest character, Rosita is an absolute force of nature, Hershel is a loyal friend, solid and good, Hackberry Holland is very much the lovable curmudgeon, and if at first Linda Gail gets under your skin (oh, how she will), her eventual redemption and hard won strength are a glory to behold.
Wayfaring Stranger has a bit of everything that I love. It’s a grand literary tour of some of the most significant events in American history, and the glamorous parties of old Hollywood and sometimes diabolical machinations of behind the scenes players mark a time thought of as “innocent” which really wasn’t. I’m from Texas, and couldn’t help but revel in a book chock so full of so much amazing Texas history. How was I ever bored by this stuff in school? Maybe I just needed James Lee Burke for a teacher. This book embodies everything that I think a good story should have, and not only is it a fine story, it’s also a meditation on human nature and our capacity for cruelty, but also the ability of the human spirit to rise above it, to love completely, and to refuse to give into the evil the evil that men, and women, do. Rosita endures some horrendous things throughout the course of this book, and her refusal to give in to those that would hurt her is inspiring, even as your heart breaks for her plight. I savored every word in this big, bold, gorgeous book. I didn’t want it to end, but what a helluva ending it was, certainly worthy of a Golden Age Hollywood actioner (I may have cried, don’t tell anyone.) If you only read a few books this year, make this one of them.