James Lee Burke,
Wayfaring Stranger
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

There are 26 letters in our English alphabet. Out of this finite number of symbols, infinite combinations of words can be created. Those that can truly create masterpieces with these 26 letters are rare. The best writers are those who transcend the written word to create visual imagery and living, breathing characters in the mind of the reader, and take that reader on a journey to anywhere. James Lee Burke is this kind of writer.

In Burke's latest book, Wayfaring Stranger, the author returns to Texas and introduces Weldon Avery Holland. Weldon is a teen living with his mother, who suffers from a mental illness, and a grandfather eking out a living during the Great Depression on a dried-out land where nothing grows but despair and hopelessness. Into this place, Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker and two other lawless characters drive to hide out between robbing banks and killing the innocent. Weldon knows that his grandfather had once fought John Wesley Hardin, Bill Dalton, Pancho Villa and others just as lawless and dangerous as this new breed of criminals. Weldon knows that his grandfather fears no one and nothing, but mourns that his daughter is mentally ill, and wonders if Weldon will ever be the man he is meant to be. Weldon becomes enthralled with the romance of having bank robbers on their property, and when they are kicked off the land by his grandfather, and the family is disrespected by them, Weldon shoots at the back window of their car, hitting it, and seeing Bonnie Parker's face. It is an encounter Weldon never forgets.

Weldon goes off to fight in World War II, earns the rank of second lieutenant and, with his sergeant Herschel Pine, becomes trapped behind enemy lines. The two men enter a Nazi concentration camp, where a young survivor named Rosita Lowenstein, whose body has not succumbed to death, and whom Weldon plucks from a pile of the dead, joins them in their dangerous journey to their unit. Much more ensues before Weldon, Rosita, his wife and Herschel return to the States. Herschel marries his "hometown girl," Linda Gail, and Weldon and Herschel very successfully enter the oil business. Evil never lags far behind in any Burke book, and anti-Semitism, greed and nearly all of the seven deadly sins are rampant in not only the oil business, but in the world they fought so hard to save. The bigger evil is from those that trade on the work of others and do all they can to destroy what Weldon and Herschel have built.

There are some authors who are quite good at what they do. They invent new characters, create new stories, yet their characters often remain similar, and these books are really quick reads that don't bear re-reading or deep thought. Burke's books are never formulaic, never written without depth of feeling and character, as well as great artistry, and are difficult to stop thinking about long after the last page is turned.

book review by
Ann Flynt

15 November 2014

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