Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke


😀 😀 😀 😀

African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension when a colleague asks him to look into a case in the small town of Lark in East Texas. Two murders have been committed – a black male lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, and the racial tensions which were already simmering in the town look like they might explode. It’s up to Darren to try to find out what happened before more violence erupts… but there are people in the town who don’t want old secrets disturbed and will go to any length to stop him.

The book is very well written and the plot is interesting, revolving around the various relationships, open and hidden, amongst the people of this small town. Fundamentally, it’s a book about racism and veers towards being too overt in its message-sending, but for the most part the excellent characterisation and sense of place carry it over this flaw. It has something of the feel of an updated version of In the Heat of the Night, with Darren mistrusted and almost ostracised by the white power-brokers of the town, having to act as a lone hero standing up for the black residents against an institutionally racist system and a bunch of terrifying white supremacists. However, Darren is no Virgil Tibbs – he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks, surely proving convincingly (and rather tediously) that there’s very little difference between black and white detectives in contemporary fiction.

Had I read this a year ago, I’d have been saying it dramatically overstates the racial divide in the US. But after the last few months of sons of bitches and very fine people, I found it frighteningly possible. However – and I’m going to get polemical myself here – while I understand why people who are victims of any form of oppression are likely to develop opposite prejudices, I can’t say I’m much fonder of anti-white racism than anti-black. There is not a single decent white person in this book, and conversely there are no bad black people. When a black person occasionally does something morally dubious, it’s made clear that they’ve been more or less forced into it by society’s racism against them. The white people however are simply racist with no real attempt to consider why this might be so. Of course, sometimes this form of exaggeration can work in literary terms to highlight an issue, but I can’t feel that it moves the debate on – it’s more of a simple protest, maybe a howl of pain. I can see it feeding into both black outrage and liberal white hand-wringing, but I have to ask, given the state of America as seen from distant Scotland, do either of those things really need feeding at this point? Personally, I feel something more nuanced – more perceptive of the underlying reasons for the polarisation of American society – would be more useful. But then, I’m not a black American and Attica Locke is…

The result of this was that I began to find the portrayal of the town less credible as the book went on. The action takes place mainly in two places – a café where the black people hang out, and a bar where the white supremacists gather. Where are the other townsfolk? Even if they were irrelevant to the plot, I’d have liked to feel that they existed – to see them at least out of the corner of my eye. Maybe all white people in East Texas really are white supremacists, and maybe all black people do spend all day every day in a café scared of being killed, but I found myself progressively less convinced.

Attica Locke

This might all make it sound as if I hated the book, but I didn’t. The quality of the writing and the flow of the story kept me engaged, and if I weren’t a political animal I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of what I saw as a lack of nuance in the portrayal of the racism. It’s all down to timing – at another time, say, a year ago, I would probably have been saying this makes for an excellent wake-up call for people who, like me, had come to think that America was finally getting over the legacy of slavery. But we’ve surely all woken up now and therefore it feels somehow redundant, or perhaps even part of the problem, as each side continues to stand on the moral high ground throwing rocks at the other side.

I realise this has been more of a political statement than a book review. But perhaps if the book serves a purpose beyond entertainment, and I’m sure Locke intends that it should, it’s to stir rational debate. I certainly recommend it – as you can tell, I found it thought-provoking even if I’m not convinced my thoughts are the ones Locke intended to provoke. But stripping my political venting out, I also found it an enjoyable and well written read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

46 thoughts on “Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

  1. Like you, I thought this book was slightly less nuanced and complex than some of Attica Locke’s previous offerings. I don’t know if this is because the racial prejudices and divides have grown harsher in the meantime, or if it is designed to be a more straightforward kind of crime fiction, or even if it’s simply as a result of the author writing for TV for a while now… A good point of entry perhaps for those who cannot take the more complicated analysis of The Cutting Season or Pleasantville.

    • I kinda felt events must have overtaken her – she’d probably have been writing this mostly pre-Trump, I suppose, and it’s really since he took over that the racial divide has become so obvious (to those of us not directly involved). While I’d still have felt it lacked nuance, I’d probably have given her a pass on the grounds that she was trying to draw a situation to people’s attention, but *sighs* I think it’s been drawn already now… I still haven’t read Pleasantville – must get to it sometime!

  2. Very well written, FF. Living between two multi-cultural cities (Cambridge and London) where prejudices no doubt exist yet people bumble along rather nicely regardless, I too raise an eyebrow when presented with depictions of such extreme racism in this modern day. I don’t for one second doubt that such people exist and indeed make life miserable for others, but it is often portrayed as very one-sided. If a group of people are being labelled a certain way because of the colour of their skin, then that is racism – which ever way round it is. It’s a shame Locke could have not been a little more even-handed, as it seems a well-written book with an important message is being hampered by its own prejudices.

    • Thanks, Lucy! 😀 Yes, I think it’s very clear that there is a white supremacist problem in the US, but I’m never convinced that this kind of reverse racism helps. Of course, it’s easy for me to take a superior attutude and shake my head at them all, but until everyone calms down and starts to look at the issues rationally, I doubt anything will change. We do have our own problems with racism too, but at least whatever we may think of our leaders, none of them are actually likely to openly praise Nazis… *crosses fingers*

  3. Is Bluebird, Bluebird named after the children’s song? Funny that the town is named Lark.
    I’m undecided about this book after reading your review, I don’t like being hit over the head by too heavy a message, but the story is intriguing. Maybe if the book falls into my lap, it will be meant to be…

    • I don’t know actually – I don’t think it really explains it in the book, but I did see one review that said it was the title of an Texan folk song. I did enjoy it, but as you can tell I felt she pushed her message too hard. I preferred the only other book of hers I’ve read – The Cutting Season… also about race, but a bit more subtle, I thought.

  4. Great review! The points you make are really interesting, it’s a shame the book comes across as too polemic. Have you read any Toni Morrison? She’s a black writer that never pulls any punches. The race issue in America is HUGE. I’m an outsider, so can’t comment except to say from what I have read, many blacks don’t think much advancement has been made really. Very sad, the legacy of slavery is ongoing. Blacks in many instances are still treated as second class citizens. It seems that this book has been thought provoking, so that’s a good thing at any rate.

    • Thanks, Cynthia! 😀 Yes, I think every western country has its own problem with racism, but somehow in America it seems particularly bad – and getting even worse from the looks of it. I really thought it had got better over the last few decades so have found recent events quite shocking. The only Morrison I’ve read is Beloved, which I thought was one of the best books I’ve ever read! Even though it’s angry and savage, it’s got a lot of nuance too, and does kinda suggest (I felt) that somehow black people have to find a way to leave the past behind them as well as white people getting their act together. A fab book – I must read some of her others, but that one affected me so strongly I needed a long gap before I could think of tackling another…

      • You’re right! Australia too has had dreadful racism directed against indigenous people and migrants. The difference in America was slavery. It’s never been properly dealt with or acknowledged or moved on from. And so many whites there seem to be either white supremacists or silently on their side, that’s the scary thing. The South, for all the advances made is still very racist from what I read. They were forced to give up slavery, they didn’t want to. I read the other day on LiteraryHub that Mississippi has banned “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a high school text, because it made people uncomfortable!! That’s very sad, a sign of a festering problem. Ta- Nehisi Coates has written a brilliant book called “Between the World and Me”. It’s non fiction and unsparingly pessimistic, but worth reading. Toni Morrison called it “necessary reading”. Sorry about long comment.😊

        • Oh, don’t apologise – I always love discussion in the comments! Yes, slavery seems to be the thing that makes America different. Even though Britain was heavily involved in the slave trade, we didn’t have a huge amounts of slaves actually in Britain, so we don’t have that hangover. Ours is all to do with the Empire and how we behaved in former colonies. And more recently the huge influx of Eastern Europeans is what triggered the whole Brexit thing. In fact, I’d be obsessing about Brexit if it wasn’t for the fact that the Trump situation seems so much more dangerous. The Coates book looks interesting – thanks for that recommendation. I’ll add it to my wish-list. 🙂

  5. It’s a shame that this book came out too simplistic, as it’s liable to divide white readers into denial or guilt, and neither is a great way to start a conversation or change. Appreciate the honest review.

    • Exactly! Attitudes have become so polarised that it seems almost impossible for people to talk rationally about what to do, so everyone just shouts at each other instead. It doesn’t help…

  6. What a thoughtful and well-written review, FictionFan (but then, yours are). I understand what you mean about the lack of nuance. That aside, I’m glad Locke keeps addressing the issues she does; they won’t go away, otherwise. And she is a skilled writer, with the ability to invite the reader along and keep the reader engaged. I’m glad you found a lot to like here.

    • Thank you, Margot! 😀 I honestly felt it was timing with this book – she would have been writing it before things became so dramatically overheated, and the lack of nuance wouldn’t have mattered quite so much then. But now it just feels as if it tends to feed the flames… But as you say, she’s an excellent writer and is at least trying to tackle this thorny subject…

  7. Great review! I’m with you–I’m anti-prejudice of any kind. I’m glad the book is well written at least.

    The struggle is real here in the U.S. But inflammatory statements and pointing fingers seem to fan the flames, rather than douse them.

    • Thanks, L. Marie! 😀 Yes, it’s got so polarised now that the moderate middle seems to have been squeezed out of the debate altogether, and I don’t see that the constant outraged shouting really helps, however satisfying it might feel at the time.

  8. Thanks for another outstanding review, FF. I haven’t read this one and probably won’t. As a former journalist, I believe in fairness and truth, and books that slant things to make a point don’t cut it for me. Not that we in the States don’t have more than our share of issues, but it seems the best way for us to tackle them is to lay everything out on the table, take a hard look at it, and work together to resolve our differences. Pointing fingers of blame — or guns — at one another never solved anything!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 I always think it would be a good rule of thumb for people to transpose all these divisive words and see whether they think what they’re saying would still be acceptable – black/white, man/woman, left/right… a little bit of nuance goes a long way in bringing people together rather than driving them further apart, I think…

  9. I agree about the timing, and also about transposing insults. This is why I’m not a good “single issue fanatic”, I almost always feel that both sides have a point. Also my experience of life is that there are far more people in the middle than at the extremes, and I like them better.

  10. Enjoyed your review – I have this on my TBR. I read her book Black Water Rising and really enjoyed it. She has an excellent sense of atmosphere and place. It’s too bad that this one was a tad too polemical but I’m still eager to read it. As an American, I can say that things are BAD. I am shocked at how more and more openly racist actions are coming to light every day now. I don’t think *most* Americans consider themselves to be racist, but I think we’ve done a HORRIBLE job of educating young people in school about our history, especially what happened AFTER the Civil War. Things weren’t good or fair for the slaves once they were freed, and the repercussions and systemic oppression have echoed throughout the ensuing 150+ years. That said, I don’t know exactly what to DO about any of it now. Except to keep reading and learning and having difficult conversations. I wish our political “leaders” (ahem) would engage with an open and curious mind, but that seems likely impossible.

    • Thanks, Laila! 😀 I read The Cutting Season years ago and have been meaning to read her other stuff for ages. My memory is that that one was more nuanced than this, but then things in general didn’t seem so polarised back then – at least not to outsiders looking in. I think that’s what’s been most shocking over the last year – that it all seemed so unexpected. I’m certain the vast majority in the middle are either not racist or only unintentionally so, but at the moment the loudest voices seem to be coming from the extremes. It worries me – for my American friends, and also frankly for the world. An unstable America isn’t good for anybody. And I agree – your leaders seem determined to make things worse, not better. Maybe it’s like a fever – it will reach a crisis and then recovery can begin. I hope so…

  11. What a thoughtful review! Your review is one of the most unique I’ve read for this book and you make some really interesting points. I tried this book but just couldn’t get into it so I returned it to the library.

    • Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it! I tried to leave the politics out, but they just kept creeping back in… 😉 Yes, it took a while to reaaly take off, and even then there was maybe a bit too much padding…

  12. It’s ok to get political with your book reviews, it’s what makes your writing voice unique! And you can’t separate your own personal views from how you perceive a book, it’s what controls our reaction to what we’re reading, so I think people expect that, and enjoy reading about it 🙂

    • Aw, thank you! I do try not to get overly political in my reviews, but when you read a lot of political books, as I do, it’s kinda hard sometimes. But if books aren’t meant to make us think while they entertain us, then what are they for… 🙂

  13. I always thought of Texas as super racist. I mean, they wanted to secede from the States when Obama was elected. Yet, I’ve heard they are some of the nicest people around and have weird pockets of liberal politics, like in Austin. I agree that a bigger picture of a city needs to be represented. What you’ve described with two rooms sounds more like a theater play.

    • Ha, and now some Californians want to secede over Trump! So much for “United” States, eh? What I’ve never understood is why young black people don’t move north as soon as they can. Racism is a problem all over the US (all over the world!) but it does seem to be particularly vile in the South. You’re right – it does have that kind of small stage set feel…

      • Traditionally, the South was the place an African American could be hanged in public and white folks would dress up to go see it. African Americans fled North, but they discovered a different kind of racism: housing, employment, schools, NIMBY sort of stuff. Malcolm X used to say he liked the Southern wolf better than the foxy Northerner because at least he knew the Southerner hated him; the Northerner tried to hide it and trick people.

        • It’s a strange old country, no doubt about it! Frankly, I just wish It would stop telling the world how superior it is and spend a bit of time putting its own house in order… it’s a real case of Rabbie Burns’ “Would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us”…

  14. Interesting review, haven’t read this one although I was definitely curious because I love the themes. But yeah, sometimes everything is simplified. But I think that might be because in some stories like The Help, for example, people end up saying: ‘how white people saved racism’ and things like that… so some authors avoid offering that perspective?

    • Yes, that’s a good point – books written by white people about race often fall into that trap, and books written by black people often go too far to the opposite extreme. I suppose it’s easy for outsiders like me to say they should all try to be a bit more moderate – it’s always easier to see both sides from a distance. I think you might enjoy this one – my review makes it sound as if it’s all politics, and it really isn’t. There’s a good story in there too… 🙂

  15. Your description “he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks” had me sighing deeply! Not sure this is for me, like TJ I’m desperately seeking nuance at the moment. She does sound like a skilled writer though.

    • Yeah, I can’t believe any author still thinks anyone is going to be wowed by a drunken maverick – same old, same old! But in other ways she’s an excellent writer and her books are always worth reading. I know what you mean, though – had I realised she was going to be so one-sided in this, I’d probably have avoided it too. I only need to go to Twitter for that…

  16. Hmm.. like you it sounds like this book fell foul of bad-timing at least for readers outside the US and I’m not a fan of being bashed over the head with issues, whatever they may be and however much I might agree with them, but I appreciate that there is a strong argument for putting these into thinking people’s hands. For all that your review has made me consider this one, when there is a free slot on the TBR.

    • Yes, I suspect when she started writing it the debate in the US hadn’t kicked off the way it has now. Maybe she’d have written it differently if she’d started it a year later. However, she is an excellent writer and I think you might well enjoy her style. Personally I preferred her earlier book, The Cutting Season…

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