Houston-born Attica Locke's novels are set in Texas and Louisiana and reveal an innate understanding of Southern racial and class nuances. She knows very well that it is complicated and not as black and white as those viewing it from the outside often imagine.
In Bluebird, Bluebird, Locke writes of an East Texas society that is much closer to the Old South than the Wild West. She sets her novel in Shelby County, Texas, in the little towns along Highway 59. Most of the towns that she mentions - like Timpson, Center, and Garrison - actually exist, although, to the best of my knowledge, there is no Lark in Shelby County, and that's where most of the action takes place.
Long ago, in what now seems like another lifetime, I was, for a while, a social services caseworker in Shelby County, and Locke's descriptions of the towns, the countryside, and the people all ring true for me. I recognize these people.
Locke's protagonist, through whose eyes we see Lark, is Darren Mathews. Darren is the nephew of the first African-American Texas Ranger. He was raised by that uncle and his brother after his father was killed in the Vietnam War and his mother was not deemed fit to raise her child.
The second uncle was a lawyer and it was taken for granted that Darren would follow in his footsteps, although he was closer to the Ranger uncle and was attracted to his profession. Darren was an exemplary student and was in his second year of law school in Chicago when something happened that changed the course of his life.
In Jasper County in East Texas, a black man named James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pickup truck. Darren sees in that horrible event a call to go home and make a stand, to uphold and enforce the law. He drops out of law school to enter law enforcement and, through the influence of his uncle, he ends up in the Texas Rangers.
His experience with the Rangers is not all smooth sailing, however, and, at the time that we meet him, he is on suspension. His personal life isn't going too smoothly either; he's battling an over-fondness for alcohol and his marriage is on very shaky ground.
In the midst of his suspension, Darren receives a call from a friend in the FBI who tells him of two murders that have recently occurred in the little town of Lark. The first murder was of an African-American lawyer from Chicago whose battered body was found in the Attoyac Bayou. The second murder victim was a local white woman whose body was also found a bit further downstream and a few days later in the Attoyac.
His FBI contact suggests that Darren, who is based in Houston, might just mosey on up Highway 59 and nose around in Lark to see what he can discover. Darren has a particular interest in crimes that have a racial motivation and he senses that that may be the case here, so he packs a bag and heads north.
In Lark, population 178, he finds a white society existing on one side of the Highway 59 and black society on the other, and yet they are inextricably linked and mixed and, in order to solve the murders, he will have to understand those connections.
Locke, who has written for television shows, including Empire, has a sharp eye for the subtleties in relationships and a brisk way of exposing them through her writing. She has given us a complex tale with compelling and insightful social and political commentary as seen through the eyes of a quintessentially Texas character who shares the "belief that they (i.e., Texans) were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn't" and who had "an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep."
Yeah, that sounds about like the Texans I know.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars