Grief can shatter your world.
Losing a loved one suddenly is a shock to the system that can tear loose time and render what we think of as reality an alien territory.
That kind of disorienting loss is the emotional setting of Every Cloak Rolled in Blood, the latest novel from revered author James Lee Burke.
Its main character, Aaron Holland Broussard, was also the protagonist in Burke’s 2021 novel, Another Kind of Eden (and appeared in earlier books). In Another Kind of Eden, set in 1962, Aaron was a young man. In this novel, set in the present, he is an old one. Since the earlier book he has found success as a writer, married, had a daughter, lost his wife not long after in an accident and settled into life on his Montana ranch.
He raised the daughter, Fannie Mae, on his own, and she became the light of his life — smart, funny, generous and kind, although she dealt with trauma in her life as well, trauma that led to struggles with substance abuse and mental illness.
But she had finally gotten clean and sober. And then she died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of natural causes.
Aaron tells us he does not think he will ever get over her death. He prays for her to give him a sign; he admits, after a time, to seeing her.
“The reason I did not mention these other visitations is my fear that I am having a nervous breakdown,” he tells the reader. “All the signs are there: suicidal thoughts, depression, insomnia, psychoneurotic anxiety, and the ennui and daily misery that can put you in the white-coated custody of people whose gloved hands you will not forget.
“But I do not want Fannie Mae to go away. If she does, I know I will want to go with her. In fact, if I’m allowed to bargain, I will ask that I be allowed to step aboard the same vehicle and go somewhere among the stars, maybe in the cold white smoke of the Milky Way, far from where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.”
But Fannie Mae’s ghost isn’t the only restless spirit in the harshly beautiful Bitterroot Mountains.
As the novel opens, Aaron’s mourning is interrupted when a couple of men drive onto his property and up to his barn, where a teenage boy spray-paints a swastika on the door as Aaron watches from his veranda.
Mystified by the vandalism — he has lived on the ranch for decades without friction with his neighbors — Aaron reports it to the state police. The trooper who answers the call, Ruby Spotted Horse, knows who he is and thinks his letters to the editor in the local paper have “stirred up some white supremacists.”
She’s sympathetic, but both of them know an investigation is unlikely. Aaron thinks he knows who the men in the truck were, and he confronts one of them, more as an outlet for his grief than anything else.
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It ends in a standoff, but he fears his own rage and goes to Ruby for help. In her handsome but crumbling old house, he discovers he’s not the only one dealing with the supernatural — although what’s trapped behind ancient barriers in her basement is a far cry from Fannie Mae’s benign spirit.
The white supremacist trail leads to drug dealing, a corrupt preacher and more. But those earthly evils seem to connect to something worse.
Aaron has been haunted much of his life, by the men he fought beside in Korea and by his ancestors who fought for slavery in the Civil War and who killed in the name of manifest destiny in the American West. But now something, whether it’s Fannie Mae’s death or his own reaction to it, has opened passages that leave him doubting the people around him and perhaps fighting for someone’s life.
His ranch is hard by the site of the Marias Massacre, a terrible attack in 1870 by the U.S. Army that killed about 200 Piegan Blackfeet people, most of them women, children and elders. When he goes outside at night, Aaron begins to see and hear the horrific events of the massacre. The soldiers who slaughtered the Blackfeet were led by Major Eugene Baker, whose ghost speaks to him, and Baker becomes a symbol to Aaron of the brutality of war and racism.
“Why do I brood in this fashion?” Aaron says. “Maybe we have already entered the time of Major Eugene Baker and those like him. Maybe we’re about to see the horses in the Book of John up close and personal, their chests heaving, their breaths hot, their mouths and necks lathered, thundering across a ruined world peopled with skeletons. But the darkest hour is not in the prophecy of a Hebrew evangelist who lived two thousand years ago; it’s in the soul. That’s why I sit here shaking in the dark. ...”
In his letter to readers at the beginning of Every Cloak Rolled in Blood, Burke writes that the book is “personal in many ways.” In 2020, one of his daughters, Pamala Burke McDavid, died suddenly, of natural causes.
The parallels between her life and character and Fannie Mae’s are many, he tells us, and writes that “the greatest darkness we can experience is to lose one’s child.” With this novel, Burke has turned his heartbreak into art.
Every Cloak Rolled in Blood
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27