For a moment he thought of forgetting the bus depot. He had almost fifty dollars in his wallet, and that would be enough until he could find some type of job. […] There was no work at all now back on the plateau, and his family would be better off if he stayed in the city and sent them part of his paycheck. There would be no J.W.’s to worry about, no long evenings in the cabin while his mother stared blankly at the fire, and no more quiet hatred or that anticipation of sudden violence when he stood next to a scab or a company man on a street corner.
The post-World War II economic boom, with the expansion in manufacturing fueled by increased consumer demand, should have been good for the coalfields of Appalachia. Instead, the social and economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression was prolonged by violent, protracted conflicts between union organizers and mine companies determined to keep the unions out and scrape every last cent of profit out of the region. This desperate poverty and equally desperate violence is the world in which Perry Woodson Hatfield James comes of age in James Lee Burke’s To the Bright and Shining Sun.
At the outset of the novel, Perry, scarcely sixteen years old, seems trapped in a never-ending cycle of futility and inevitability. Because of an injury his father suffered in a mining accident, Perry is the only member of his family fit to work regularly. Unfortunately, work, when it can be found, is degrading, dangerous, and does not pay enough to support a single person much less an entire family, not even in the eastern Kentucky hollow where Perry lives. Despite the promises of union benefits and wages, mechanization is eliminating hundreds of jobs in the big mines. To keep the unions out, mine operators either shut down or trucked in scabs from out of state. There might be work for a small operator, but those jobs offered with no benefits, hazardous conditions, “and the little money he made wouldn’t pay the charge at the store at the end of the month.” The only alternatives were to make moonshine for the Detroit syndicate or work for the Forest Service government keeping trails clear – jobs generally reserved for survivors, like Perry’s father, of mining accidents.
Forced into unemployment by a mine shutdown in anticipation of a union vote and denied an extension of credit to buy food for his family, Perry fears violence is the only option left to him. He is, after all, a descendant of both Devil Anse Hatfield and Frank James. Even as he helps plant explosives to drive off scabs, however, Perry tells himself, “It ain’t too late…. Run on down the road as far as you can get and it ain’t a part of you no longer.”
Hope arrives in the form of Job Corps, a social program initiated during the Johnson administration that provides young men with education and vocational training. Perry signs on and travels down to North Carolina, where he throws himself into the program, learning to write and operate a bulldozer, and cautiously nurturing a dream of a better life in the paradise of Cincinnati. The violence back home snatches Perry back, however, when a pro-union meeting is blown up and Perry’s father mortally injured. Having tasted opportunity, will Perry be able to escape the quagmire of desperation and futility, or will he give in to seeming inevitability, perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty that destroyed his father?
To the Bright and Shining Sun was James Lee Burke’s second published novel, and thus falls outside the purview of the Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland series he is better known for (the first Robicheaux novel was published in 1987, and the first Holland book came out a decade later). Nonetheless, it presents early evidence of the hallmarks of Burke’s writing: the role of place and geography as character, the psychological impact of prolonged poverty, the use of violence in pursuit of social justice, a sympathetic law enforcement officer.
I wasn’t very surprised to read on Burke’s Web site that he worked for the Job Corps. In fact, the section of To the Bright and Shining Sun where Perry is with the Job Corps doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the story, and I suspect Mr. Henson may have been modeled on the author. It’s the sort of thing one might expect to find from a writer still learning the ropes. Were Burke to write To the Bright and Shining Sun today, now that he’s got over two dozen novels to his name, the Job Corps interlude would probably fit in more seamlessly with the rest of the story.
Ultimately, while To the Bright and Shining Sun doesn’t have quite the emotional heft of, say, The Tin Roof Blowdown, it is nonetheless indubitably a James Lee Burke novel. I recommend it in particular to readers familiar only with Burke’s Dave Robicheaux and/or Billy Bob Holland series, as an example both of Burke’s early work and an atypical setting for him, and to readers interested in Appalachia in the 20th century.