End Date: August 29
Author: James Lee Burke
Genre: General Fiction
Pages: 435 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“It is 1934 and the Depression is bearing down when sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends as Weldon puts a bullet through the rear window of Clyde’s stolen automobile.
“Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, escape certain death in the Battle of the Bulge and encounter a beautiful young woman named Rosita Lowenstein hiding in a deserted extermination camp. Eventually, they all return to Texas in search of their fortunes, entering the den of jackals known as the oil business.” – from the Goodreads summary.
Let me preface this whole review by saying this is typically not my go-to sort of novel. When it comes to fiction, I tend to stick with fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and historical-based fiction, but I was at a loss for selections this month: we’d just come off of reading two fantasy novels back-to-back, I was reading the Witcher Saga on the side, and I knew BillMo was intending to select another fantasy for September… I bemoaned the fact that I had no non-fantasy selections ready for August, and it was my mother who recommended James Lee Burke’s newest novel to me, because she thought I’d like his style.
“Sometimes your luck runs out and you have to accept that the life you planned was a dream written on water.”
She wasn’t wrong there, either – I do quite like his style. Burke writes in a way that reminds me of Em’s favorite author, Larry McMurtry – like McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Wayfaring Stranger unfolds casually and gracefully as a seemingly simple story of two friends who have been through hell and survived to tell the tale, only to meet their most difficult trials back home at the hands of their own. The prose is truly beautiful and highly intelligent without ever coming across as pretentious, and reading it was a real pleasure, equal parts gripping and comforting, sort of like curling up late at night with a cup of tea to watch my favorite black-and-white movies.
“The wrong people always worry. The people who are the real problem never worry about anything.”
Our protagonist, Weldon Holland, is a simple man whose life is anything but simple. We first meet him as a teenager who has been raised in the rural South by his grandfather and mother, and he is very soon involved in a confrontation with the Barrow Gang that results in a lifelong obsession with Bonnie Parker – throughout the novel, Weldon reminisces upon her smile and flippant, flirtatious attitude, and he repeatedly compares the women in his life to this first unrequited crush. Weldon is eventually called to service in WWII; he is almost killed at the front and sees the deprivation and horror that were the concentration camps, but he also meets two of the most important people of his life during this ordeal: Hershel and Rosita. Upon his return to America, Weldon finds his old life is now something to which he simply no longer belongs and all of the dreams he once had are no longer fulfilling or suitable for the man he has become since the War – an understandable feeling for anyone who has served or known someone who has served their country during wartime. I loved Weldon’s noble nature and his idealism, and I saw his tendency to expect people to act honorably to be both realistic and his Achilles heel. Realistic, because he himself is an honorable man and, as humans, our judgments are based on how we ourselves believe we would act or react in certain situations – as an honorable man, he simply cannot wrap his mind around the rapacious greed and murderous natures of those around him. But this is also his greatest – and possibly his only real – weakness, as he tends to either set people on pedestals or misjudge their intentions, and when they perform in a way that he finds less than suitable, he tends to write them off quite thoroughly. Without this weakness, Weldon would actually be quite nearly perfect, so I appreciated the addition of this mild self-righteousness as it made him flawed.
“Maybe writing in a notebook about things most people could not imagine would make me captain of my soul.”
Hershel is set up to be a pitiful character on the surface. He marries a pretty young girl before rushing off to the front, where, save for the intervention of Weldon Holland, he would have met his death in a fox hole, crushed beneath the wheels of a German tank. But unlike Weldon, Hershel’s a love-sick young man trapped in a bad marriage, and his part as the cuckold automatically makes the reader feel sympathy for rather than empathy with him. It’s easy to forget, after reading chapter after chapter of how mistreated and unappreciated Hershel is by his lovely bride, that he made it out of WWII alive. Not only that, but it is clear from the beginning that he suspects the truth about his wife and simply chooses not to acknowledge or confront that truth until he no longer has a choice; he asks Weldon on more than one occasion about his Missus – her whereabouts, who she might be with, what she might be doing, etc. – and these are not the sort of questions a husband would ask his friend unless he had some real reason to distrust his wife. Not only that, but sometimes even the words he chooses when asking about Linda Gail seem so desperate, and it’s clear he’s looking for something – either reassurance that all is well or the blank, bold, miserable truth. So, I firmly believe he had her number for quite some time, and that his eventual rage had more to do with disappointment in her and disgust with himself for allowing it to go as far as it did for as long as it did than it did with surprise at her behavior. The most interesting aspect to me of Hershel was actually his relationship with Weldon. The latter tends to treat Hershel like an invalid or a simpleton; he obviously loves his friend dearly and wants to protect him, and he did save him and carry him out of that foxhole and across enemy lines, but he spends the majority of the novel continuing to carry him, and this overbearing dominance only overshadows the truth: without Hershel’s skills, the two men would have no oil business at all.
“As flawed as Southern culture is, mendacity has always been treated in the South as a despicable characteristic. Notice how often Southerns casually address others as ‘you son of a bitch’ with no insult intended. When the same person calls someone ‘a lying son of a bitch,’ you know he’s serious.”
As for the ladies, Rosita and Linda Gail could not be two more different women. Rosita is a warrior woman, a Spanish Jew with questionable Communist ties in an America rife with intolerance for all of the above. She is strong, she is sure, she has walked through hell and come out unscathed. She matches Weldon perfectly: where he is an idealist, she is a realist – he may have his head in the clouds about the nature of Man, but she saw the same things he did during the War and then some, and she has no delusions about just how low a human being might sink to get what they want. Their marriage is a partnership of two equals, and it is clear that she values Weldon’s opinion as much as he values hers. On the other hand, Linda Gail and Hershel’s relationship is nothing short of a sham. Married too early and probably for the wrong reasons, Hershel clearly thinks infinitely more highly of his wife than she does of her husband. While selfish, vain, uneducated, self-absorbed, ignorant, and woefully misguided, I am loath to call Linda Gail “wicked.” I believe she feels true remorse for her behavior, and she later reveals her own desire to protect Hershel – not only from those who would do him harm but from Weldon who will not let him learn to stand on his own two feet; however, she is simply unprepared for the world in which she swiftly becomes immersed – in other words, she is entirely out of her depth when it comes to the business of Hollywood. The best comparison I can make for Linda Gail is in Marilyn Monroe: an uneducated but undeniably pretty girl from Podunk, U.S.A. with dreams of stardom who suddenly gets a break and then goes a little mad from all of the accolades, attention, and power by which she is surrounded.
“The woods in late autumn had become his private sun-dappled cathedral, one that contained presences antithetical to the convention notion of church.”
I truly loved this novel until about 80% in. At that point, all of the beautiful descriptions, the clever prose, and the realistic writing suddenly became mingled with an abrupt supernatural element that surfaces and disappears consistently after that moment until reemerging to play a major role in the ending. And the ending just really let me down and is the sole reason I gave this book a four rather than a five – it literally burns itself out, then rushes to tie everything together and end with a happily-ever-after. The car chase abruptly comes to a halt, and the puppet-master(s) behind the pursuit are never mentioned again; after the chase ends, that’s simply… well.. it. Story’s over. And so much is left unsaid – it was never really clear to me why any of the antagonists did what they did, nor was it entirely clear just who all was actually involved in the actions against Weldon, Hershel, Linda Gail, and Rosita.
All in all, I would recommend this book.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: I can’t say I’m anywhere near as strong as either of them, but I liked Rosita and Grandpa the most. They were both the voices of reason throughout the novel, and both were able to push themselves to extraordinary lengths and endure humiliation and pain for the sake of those they loved most.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
This isn’t the type of book I would normally choose to read, but I found myself pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed it as much as did.
“WPA: We Piddle Around.”
I have to say that our main character, Weldon, is someone that people really should strive to be like, but he actually did irritate me some. He was very strong-headed and you really could not sway this man. This can be a great characteristic but sometimes you need to learn to listen to those around you and accept help from people that you may never think you would need to. I think a lesson learned in this story is to give SOME people the benefit of the doubt albeit cautiously. I think Roy Wiseheart (who I didn’t decide I liked until the end) may have said it best to Weldon:
“You need somebody to save you from yourself. It’s you who’s out of the past.”
I think the author did a great job with character development. I also really liked Rosita and would like to be like her: a strong, determined woman. Hershel is also someone who was great in this story; he was tender-hearted and a true friend.
“She had a face that could make a freight train turn on a dirt road.”
Linda Gail, however, was not my favorite person, though I did feel sorry for her and felt that she jumped into situations headfirst without really thinking about what she was about to do or the consequences of her actions. She lived life thinking that the things that happened to and around her were all simply meant to be, that there was some deep purpose for all of it, when in reality all of the things that occurred were the result of choices made by the characters involved – I would have really loved to have told her, “Look, girly, just because you were able to get away with something doesn’t necessarily mean that the Universe is in agreement with what you’re doing.”
“Don’t get caught up in rules, Holland.”
I know the ending bothered most of the other ladies, but it really didn’t stand out to me as being all that terrible and honestly didn’t even consider what they all have mentioned about the ending until our meeting. I would certainly recommend this book for others to read.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: I’m not really sure I identified or empathized with any of them. I felt the most sorry for Hershel, and I’d like to most be like Rosita. I guess if I had to pick someone, though, I’d say the character of Grandpa made the most sense to me.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
The Divine Ms. Em:
While I do enjoy Burke’s writing style, this story seemed to go around and around and around. It started with the main character, Weldon Holland, as a sixteen-year-old boy in Texas who lived with his mother and grandfather with an absentee father. His mother is on the edge of mental illness, and his grandfather is a gnarly old Texan who once fought against Poncho Villa. Weldon and his grandfather have a few encounters with Bonnie and Clyde shortly before the untimely death of the latter pair, and he immediately has an adolescent crush on Bonnie Parker that continues as a memory throughout most of the story.
Weldon goes to serve in the Second World War and ends up behind enemy lines, eventually overrun by tanks and artillery. He saves the life of a fellow soldier, Hershel, who was trapped and almost crushed by a tank. The two made it to a train and then, as they were trying to escape, ended up at a concentration / death camp that was filled with horrific numbers of dead; in the midst of this carnage, they found a survivor: Rosita Lowenstein, a refugee of the Spanish Civil War. They rescued her, and eventually all three found themselves back in the “civilized” world.
After the war, the three are separated: Hershel returns to his pre-war bride, Linda Gail, while Weldon focuses on tracking down Rosita to fulfill the great romance for which he knows the two of them are destined. Hershel tracked Weldon down with a proposition to build pipelines with a special weld that he noted had been used by the Germans to build the very same tanks that he and Weldon had almost been killed by in the War. They obtained the patents for the welding machines and formed what eventually became a highly successful company.
That’s the gist of it, but there were so many subplots and small stories threaded throughout this novel. *****SPOILER ALERT***** >>> There is a major story arc revolving around Rosita’s status as both a Jew and daughter of a Spanish communist in the midst of post-WWII America, as well as another arc involving Linda Gail’s Hollywood breakthrough and the resulting seductions and temptations which are all woven into the main plot… But, while the writing style was beautiful, the various meandering story arcs kept me waiting for a tie-in and cohesive ending that was never quite achieved. In the end, it never truly clear why all of the drama was necessary, and Burke never makes it clear why those working against Weldon, Hershel, Rosita, and Linda Gail are so hellbent on lying, cheating, blackmailing, and pursuing the main characters, nor do you ever find out who “they” are; instead, you keep reading, waiting for it all to tie together. <<< *****END SPOILER*****
I had high hopes for resolution, but the ending really disappointed me. It was like the author just got tired of writing and couldn’t come up with a really great way to draw all of the stories together to end the book and just decided, “To hell with it,” and let the world go down in flames, literally and figuratively. And then, just like that, everything was fine.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: No one.
Ms. Em read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
The best way to describe reading this book for me, is like watching a black and white movie featuring Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, and so on. The delivery of the prose was rich and vivid, with it being a bit much for me, sometimes. However, the delivery of the lines I could picture any of the above actors/actresses bringing the words to life. This book has depth and character in the way that is written that echoes of yesteryear’s movies that today’s Hollywood and writers can’t seem to capture.
The prose is prolific as we follow Weldon and his band of misfits through the story. I could picture very clearly the people, the time, and place in which each event took place. From the first scenes with his grandfather down to the final scenes with Roy. While I appreciate the thought, formulation of the story and the execution, there were times where I was thinking, “Weldon get on with it. What the heck are you getting at?” I love that the conversations had by the characters echoes the old black and white movies as well. The conversations are simple to clever and imitates an art of conversation that seems lost in most recent decades. Innuendo, cryptic but meaningful conversations start and flow through the course of the novel that I can honestly say I have not read by a modern writer.
We are introduced to Weldon as an impressionable teenager at the height of the Depresssion living in Texas with his crotchety, ex-lawman grandfather and his slightly mentally disturbed mother. Weldon has a contentious, but oddly loving relationship with his grandfather. His grandfather can be antagonistic, condescending and sometimes downright cruel in his name calling and actions taken. However, I believe that this behavior is born out of the life he lived as a lawman in the wild west taking on the likes of the Dalton Gang, etc. Grandfather is a man’s man, not terribly in touch with his sensitive side and how he interacts with his loved ones. Weldon is no exception to this. I believe that Weldon’s moral compass is based off his rearing by his grandfather, no matter how much he despises (or so he thinks) his grandfather at the onset of the novel. However, we see the love between the two manifest itself more clearly in how they interact in the twilight of Grandfather’s life and the maturity Weldon forms.
Weldon’s encounter with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow during the Depression colors his perceptions of people later in life and throughout the book. Weldon is smitten with Bonnie and seems to measure every woman he comes across to Bonnie, including his wife, Rosita. The ambiguous scenes between Bonnie and Weldon could be perceived as either a kindness done to him by a hard-hearted woman or a thinly veiled threat to him. Weldon chooses to take it as a warm gesture by someone who could see beyond herself slightly, to keep him safe. However, when the gang disrespects Grandfather and threatens him, Weldon takes offense and does defend his grandfather. Seemingly, their bond grows at this point and lasts throughout the novel.
Weldon’s lessons learned from his grandfather and his own sense of morality, shapes how he deals with those who report to him in World War II to dealings with others while building his oil empire. Weldon defends those who cannot defend themselves, time and time again. First chastising Hershel for berating a Jewish member of the unit and then later building Hershel up and protecting him later in life. Weldon’s rescue of his wife from the death camp and his subsequent interactions with her grows a bond between himself, Hershel and Rosita that no enemy, whether in their home or close to home can break the three.
My only true issue with Weldon is that he is so morally upstanding, it’s as if he refuses to truly acknowledge the evil of man. What I mean by this is, he is unwilling (Burke seems to take the same tack), to see all sources of danger but only see who the villains of the novel that are clear cut. Those who are seen as threats are treated as such, nevermind that there may be subterfuge and deception closer to home. For instance, Weldon perceives Roy Wiseheart not to be a chip off the old block of his father, where the reader could see that Roy wasn’t always as upstanding to the standard that Weldon held him to. While Weldon wanted to believe in Roy’s goodness and nobleness despite his moral turpitudes, Weldon still believes in Roy almost until the end. What I would have liked to see is a bit more discernment from Weldon, and not a single-minded pursuit of his sometimes misguided beliefs. While he pulls no punches and confronts who he feels he should, he opens himself up to attacks that could have been avoided but probably would have made the story less palatable.
Rosita is strong woman in this book. A survivor of the Nazi depredations and torture, Rosita is the picture of strength, elegance and determination. She attempts to warn Weldon off of her before they marry and even explains her family’s communist ties to give him an out. However, Weldon, being Weldon, would not let his ladylove, his second incarnation of Bonnie allude him. Rosita is a good match, clear in mind and spirit and sees things that Weldon cannot. She explains what he is slow to comprehend and is willing to take her lumps as she sees them. She does not feel entitled to anything for having survived a war and a Nazi death camp. She asks for no more than what she feels she deserves and even less. I can really find no fault with Rosita and her construction in the novel, unlike the other women in the story.
Contrasting dramatically to Rosita is Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail. This character made me want to pull her from the pages to choke her within an inch of her life. Linda Gail’s life was never nearly as hard as Rosita’s. Clearly, growing up in Louisiana does not amount to being pulled from your home, forced to perform self-deprecating acts to those who would see you dead, and almost ending up dead as Rosita did. However, Linda Gail epitomizes what is so common in American culture these days…a sense of entitlement. She feels that someone owes her, whether it is getting a break in Hollywood, being accepted into a neighborhood that any normal person would say, “eh, you don’t want me and I certainly could care less about you”, to requesting her lover check on her husband. I found her to be juvenile to downright the most idiotic character there was. Characters kept trying to paint her as innocent. She was clearly no innocent. She used her sexuality as plainly as any manipulative woman would. At every turn I was hoping something horrible would befall her. Alas, not my luck.
I did enjoy Hershel, despite his dogmatic stubbornness. He would defend his less than virtuous wife, even if it meant putting himself at risk. I believe that throughout the book, he did know she wasn’t the best fit for him, but he loved her, married her before he shipped out and his vows meant far more to him than they did to her. However, anyone who earned Hershel’s respect would have to work long and hard to lose that respect. I thought he came close when he truly discovered Linda Gail’s infidelity. However, his actions of decimating the yard and flower garden was the big blow up for him and while I hoped he’d show the same type of abandon when confronting Roy and Linda Gail, it did not come to pass.
I’m torn by the portrayal of Roy. He seems like someone you might want to know, but then always second guess their motives in wanting to know you. He seems to truly be down on himself and attempts in every conceivable manner to make himself feel worthy. Whether he is courting a married woman or attempting to gain Weldon’s affection, Roy does very little to make him seem genuine. He comes off as a manipulator and masterful playboy who is trying, not very hard, to be ambiguous and maintain his lifestyle as it is. Roy is forever attempting to redeem himself for the incident in the South Pacific where he failed his comrade. The question is how far is he willing to bend to gain Weldon’s approval?
Again, Burke makes the villains all too obvious in the novel. Clara and Dalton Wiseheart are pretty plain even for all their cruelty throughout the novel. However, I was not satisfied with the ending and clarification of who was actually the culprit of what injustice and harm that was suffered by Weldon, Rosita and Hershel. Clara got her just desserts, but what about Dalton? A bigger question to me was, did Dalton have anything to do with misfortunes that befell the trio or was it Clara all along?
Again, this is an eloquently rendered book. The descriptive of every nuance of every situation was a bit much for me. While it painted a lovely picture and I was thrown back to a great era of movies, I did find myself growing impatient because I wanted to move the story along and get resolutions. The ending fell flat for me and I’m a wee bit disappointed.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: Grandpa.
Esbe read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.