Book Review: Every Cloak Rolled in Blood by James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke’s most autobiographical novel yet examines America’s bloody past and contentious present, through a holistic lens that embraces the supernatural while railing against the all-too-human stupidity and greed that lead to so much unnecessary suffering and death.
The fourth book in the Holland Family Saga finds aging novelist Aaron Holland Broussard reeling from the recent, unexpected demise of his beloved daughter Fannie Mae. While she died of natural causes, Aaron has understandable trouble understanding how his only child managed to precede him into the grave:
I will tell you what I have learned about the dead. They are not to be feared. In fact, they are sad creatures, and the silence in their faces begs for our pity, but sometimes I long to sleep among them, even those I killed.
I will not accept my daughter’s death. I will find a way to pull her back through the veil or untether myself and lie down in the bottom of a boat that has no oars and float down the Columbia and into the Pacific, where she will be waiting for me somewhere beyond the sun.
It’s somewhat comforting to him that he can see and talk to what he believes is Fannie Mae’s ghost, lonely as he is on his secluded Montana ranch. But when an intergenerational group of white supremacists comes to his barn in broad daylight and paints a swastika on his barn door, he realizes that he’s going to need more friends than just the shade of his deceased daughter, helpful though she may often be.
Enter State Trooper Ruby Spotted Horse, who is willing to take his statement but, more importantly, is willing to believe him when he says he interacts with Fannie Mae’s ghost. Her own history has primed her to believe in the influence of spirits on the living world, even if that faith makes her a bit of a laughing stock with the rest of local law enforcement. Even so, Aaron isn’t quite ready to trust her completely, especially after hearing strange noises coming from behind her basement door one day.
His concerns over her secrets are quickly swept aside, however, when two young men sneak up on his house one night, armed to the teeth and ready to break in. As he prepares to confront them, he deliberates on both his own past and how exactly he’s ready to square up to the future:
Perhaps the young men on the other side of my wall are like those boys of years ago. Did their parents love them? What a laugh. What kind of orphanage were they in, one that made them polish the floors by wrapping rags around their knees? A tiny tick of a dial in the back of their heads could have made all the difference. Am I willing to take their lives? By the same token, am I willing to let them take mine?
It’s Fannie Mae who inspires him to try to reach these boys by helping them, setting them—and other hard-luck folks he encounters on his quest to defuse the threats against his person—on a path to gainful employment and education. But the lure of their old lives, of the easier path of choosing the hatred and selfishness they’re already familiar with over a difficult, unfamiliar life of practicing empathy and hope, proves as tempting as any assistance a rich stranger can provide. Meanwhile, the ghosts of America’s murderous history war with spirits like Fannie Mae’s to claim the souls of as many as they can in an ongoing cycle of devastating violence.
Mr. Burke pulls no punches as he examines everything that’s wrong with America, through the eyes of a hero trying desperately to do what little he can to make things right. It’s difficult when entrenched interests and corruption work so hard to seduce the hopeless and the dissatisfied into sacrificing their own lives and futures for short-term gain. The desperation and fears of these dispensable members of the underclass are merely grist for a mill that works primarily, if not solely, to churn out profits for the few on top of the food chain, as Mr. Burke deftly illustrates over the course of this novel.
Faith is what sustains Aaron against these overwhelming odds: not necessarily a faith in any of the all-too-corruptible organized religions that prey on those seeking comfort, community, and answers, but a faith in the best in humanity and in doing good for its own sake. It’s a hard road our hero undertakes, leavened by the beauty he’s grateful to still be able to acknowledge in the world around him, and in the breathtaking prose Mr. Burke uses to chronicle his tale.