Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
Southern fables usually go the other way around. A white woman is killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.
But when it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules – a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger working the backwoods towns of Highway 59, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about his home state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.
So when allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he is drawn to a case in the small town of Lark, where two dead bodies washed up in the bayou. First a black lawyer from Chicago and then, three days later, a local white woman, and it’s stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes – and save himself in the process – before Lark’s long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.
I picked this novel via netgalley, as I am a huge fan of novels with a diverse theme. I then saw a blurb from one of my favourite authors, Joe Ide giving praise for the novel and knew it must very special indeed. I knew the novel dealt with strong themes of racial inequality and the unbalanced justice system of the USA. However, at this point my knowledge of this, was limited to the infrequent news reports here in the UK and fiction/non-fiction reading. I have never visited the USA so have never witnessed the complexity of the issue, well that was all about to change! I picked up Bluebird Bluebird and only a few days later the Charlottesvile neo-Nazi’s formed their march, that left one woman dead and many injured. Suddenly this novel felt very poignant!
“For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain”
The novel surrounds the case of two dead bodies found in the bayou. One a black lawyer from Chicago and the other a local white woman. The racial tension of the setting of Larks, is evident on every page. This is a place that is divided by race and refuses to change. The novel details the crooked unbalance in the American justice system, one that will continue to define generation after generation. Black history meets white privilege head on, in this rollercoaster of a read. The novel is incredibly thought provoking, especially against a backdrop of current politics. I found myself questioning why the president of the USA, is so keen to condemn and discredit, the black lives matter movement. Whilst allowing white supremacist movements like the Aryan brotherhood to thrive!
The novel opens in 2016 Texas, USA. We are initially met with Geneva, a local café owner, the difference between justice for a black/white victim is explored. As the body of the black lawyer, has barely been investigated by the local police. But for the white local victim they are pulling out all the stops! In my eyes, a victim is a victim, end of!
But in rural America, it is not that way at all.
We meet protagonist and Texas ranger Darren Matthews, he has recently been suspended from work, his wife’s kicked him out and he is lonely and a little bit broken. He is called as a witness at an indictment case in San Jacinto county. The case involves Darren’s close friend Rutherford ‘Mack’ McMillan, who Darren has known for 20yrs. Mack is possibly being indicted for the crime of murder! The police believe he has shot and left for dead Ronnie ‘red rum’ Malvo. The case is one of extreme complexity, with Malvo being a member of the Aryan brotherhood Texas (ABT). Two days prior to the discovery of Malvo’s body, Darren was summoned to Mack’s property. Malvo was trespassing and harassing Mack’s granddaughter Breanna. When Darren arrives on the scene, Mack has his gun aimed at Malvo. Darren diffuses the situation and Malvo leaves.
Two days later Malvo is found dead in a ditch. A circumstantial case is built that Mack, holding vengeance for the incident, he tracked down and killed Malvo. Mack is facing death row! Prior to his suspension, Darren was working on a multi-agency task force. Their sole reason for assembly, is to dismantle the ABT and jail them for their various drug/gun operations they run. Darren knows that Malvo had turned snitch and any member of the ABT could have had him taken out. But he can’t declare this in court due to the level of secrecy on the task force.
The reader is led to believe Mack will just become another statistic, another black man wrongly convicted!
“How easily a coloured man’s general comportment could turn into a matter of life and death”
Darren leaves court frustrated with the system and angry that he can’t speak out! He meets up with agent Greg Heglund from the criminal investigation division (FBI). They discuss the task force and its intentions. We learn the task force only truly cares about taking down criminal activity of the ABT. They have no intention of dealing with the racial hatred. It’s at this moment we learn Darren has been greenlit and the ABT have targeted his property with faeces. Greg urges Darren to discreetly look into another case for him, whilst he is on suspension. A case in Lark, Shelby county.
Lark a small town with a population of just 178. Is no stranger to racial murders. But with the last case having been in 1998, what has driven somebody to murder in 2016. The 1998 case was when James ‘Jasper’ Byrd Jnr was dragged through the town, until his head came off. The murder was savage, but what has made this racist savagery return!
“He felt ashamed of his country and ashamed of his home state”
We get some more background on Darren and we learn of his desire to enter law school and of his own parentage. His father having died in Vietnam at just 19yrs old. His 16yr old mother couldn’t cope and he was raised by his uncles. His mother is now a crafty alcoholic, surviving on her wits. After visiting with his mother and pondering his own roots. He decides to take the case.
As he drives the US highway 59, the meaning of this is explained to the reader. With its links to the northern border and slavery. We also hear Darrens internal thoughts on the ABT. The ABT being born in a Texas prison, half their members incarcerated at any one time. The initiation process requiring a dead black body, removed of its skin. The Lark case involves victim one, Michael Wright, a Texas native now living in Chicago. He is a lawyer by profession and has a similar background to Darren. He is married but separated and no-one appears to know what he was even doing in Lark. Victim two is Missy Dale, a local waitress, enrolled in beauty school. She is married to Keith Avery Dale, who is fresh out of jail. Is he ABT?
Darren arrives in town and is quickly acquainted with local café owner Geneva, Michael’s wife Randie and sheriff Parker Van Horn. The Sheriff is quick to label Michaels murder as a drunken accident, despite the evidence to the contrary. It isn’t long until Darren is faced with local members of the ABT and the tension starts to build.
The case and the plot are extremely cleverly written. They keep you guessing until the very last page. The characterisation is insightful and intense. Why does the world look out for the likes of Missy Dale, whilst ignoring the victims like Michael Wright and Mack? Having been made aware so clearly of the unbalanced and unfair justice system. Why do the ABT feel they are the victims? Why are they so obsessed with hating on black citizens who have done them, no harm? And as stated above, why does the US president defend them? Although this is a work of fiction, the roots of its inspiration are clear.
White supremacy is a poison and it is killing America. 5*
“Criminality, once it touched black life, was a stain hard to remove”
Q) The novel displays the strong racial divides and small town mentality of Lark as a setting. As a British woman, born only in 1983, I find the fact that places like Lark really exist frightening. What was the inspiration behind the rural small town setting? Was there are real-life situation that created the idea of Bluebird Bluebird?
A) All of my family come from towns along Highway 59 in east Texas, so that was the inspiration for the location. I’ve always been fascinated by the culture of these small towns and the secrets I always imagined must be lurking the pine trees. There has, of course, over the years been racial violence in east Texas, but there was no one true incident for which I took inspiration for this book.
Q) The protagonist Texas ranger Darren Matthews, comes across extremely honest and decent. Whilst he is not without his faults, his dedication towards the case, I found admirable. How did you create his character?
A) Like all the characters, I kind of build them slowly in my head by filling out their world. Knowing that Darren was raised by his twin uncles was my first clue into who he is. The fact that they were so different and that he felt split between their two ideological ideas about role of the police in the protection of black life is the most significant thing about his character. And once I knew that his mother gave him up and once I “met” her—wrote the first scene with the two of them together—I felt I understood him even better.
Q) The novel also feature the Aryan Brotherhood Texas (ABT). The novel must have required some researching and exploring of how these networks operate. The emotion fully comes across on the page, as the plot unravels. Is it difficult emotionally, as the writer to imagine and write about these characters, such as the ABT?
A) No. It’s scary to know they exist, but writing about them wasn’t difficult. I will say that sometimes I would write something that felt too over the top—in terms of its racism—then I’d find a piece of research that suggested things are even worse than my imagination, in terms of what the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas has been accused of doing.
Q) Within Bluebird Bluebird there are many references to the civil rights movement. I have read numerous non-fiction novels on the US civil rights including The Blood Of Emmett Till. There is a wealth of fictional novels also being produced currently, with a similar theme. In my opinion America is producing some of the finest diverse fiction! Were you influenced by current politics in the theme of this novel?
A) Of course. All of my books are political and influenced by the world around me. I will say that I wrote this before Trump was elected, so it’s been discomfiting to see how timely this book is.
Q) As referenced in my review, I read Bluebird Bluebird, whilst watching the current news reports of marches in Charlottesville. Suddenly the entire novel became so very poignant and I realised this wasn’t a new political issue for the USA, it was an issue that had never gone away. I watched a news interview yesterday (21st Aug 2017) where US author, Colson Whitehead cited this is due to having a white supremacist in the white house. In your opinion what is it that is bringing the racists out of their closets?
A) Obama. I think a black president represented a level of cultural change that a good number of white Americans are uncomfortable with. Most polls now are revealing that anxiety about racial progress for people of color is the number one reason people voted for Trump. The people marching in Charlottesville and other places want a country that no longer exists. They want to go back to time when they are in charge of everything and singularly benefit from the country’s wealth and politics.
*Huge thanks to the author for agreeing to take part in a Q&A on my blog!*