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James Lee Burke's new novel begins in West Texas in 1934, and the story begins with a fateful encounter between the narrator, Weldon Avery Holland, and the notorious Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker - a meeting which ends with the sixteen-year-old Holland putting a bullet through the windscreen of Clyde's stolen automobile. Weldon's education in the evils that men - and women - are capable of continues as we move to the Ardennes Forest and the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, where Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland saves his sergeant, Hershel Pine, from death by suffocation when he is buried alive in his foxhole under the treads of a Waffen SS Tiger tank. Weldon and Hershel survive the executions of the wounded by the SS and escape on a freight train deep into Nazi Germany. There, they stumble into an extermination camp deserted by the SS, and discover among the stacked bodies a young woman named Rosita Lowenstein - the second woman to change Weldon's life. Weldon goes all the way to the Elbe River in the war's brutal climax, but afterwards he is determined to find Rosita - eventually tracking her down in Paris, where they get married. But Hershel has also found gold in the dross of conflict, claiming to have discovered the secret to the Tiger tank's indestructibility, its unique welding process - and on their return to the States, it looks as if the two friends have not merely survived; they're going to be rich. But as the two form a pipeline corporation and enter the oil business, they are about to encounter - amidst the super-rich of Huston - levels of greed and cruelty they thought they had left far behind in the blood and horror of war.
Wayfaring Stranger is such a good book that I read it twice. James le Burke has written a great piece of literature in which he paints vivid word pictures that draw you into the story. We meet Weldon Avery Holland at the age o 16, on his Grandfather's Texas ranch. He has a chance meeting with the Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow gang and Bonnie Parker leaves an impression on you Weldon that lasts a lifetime.

We nest find Weldon Holland in World War II Germany, close to the end of the war. He and sergeant Hershel Pine find themselves behind enemy lines, where they stumble upon a deserted Nazi death camp. They save the one lone survivor the find there, lovely Rosita Lowenstein. Weldon and Hershel carry her to a German farmhouse where the owner and his wife feed and clothe Rosita back to health. Soon the war is over and before they leave Europe, Weldon and Rosita marry in Paris.

Hershel Pine and Weldon go into business together when they get back to Texas after the war. Using German tank making engineering, they form the Dixie Belle Pipeline and proceed to get rich. Their success, Rosita's Jewishness and her Spanish communist background bring pure evil out to smash and tear them apart. But Weldon will let nothing keep him apart from his Rosita.

I have never read anything by James Lee Burke before, but this book has made me a convert. I intend to make him one of my favorite authors!

This is a very different James Lee Burke (JLB) novel to his popular Dave Robicheaux detective thrillers. This is a book about good and evil in life seen through the eyes of Weldon Holland who grew up in Texas during the Depression, fought in WWII and returned home to try to make his fortune. It is written by a master storyteller whose prose, as usual, is remarkable and atmospheric.

Weldon's first brush with good and evil came when infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow drove onto his Grandfather's property. He was immediately captured by Bonnie's beauty, an impression that never left him, but things changed when they came back the next day after a bank robbery went bad. After one of them spat on his Grandfather as they drove away Weldon fired a shot through the car's back window. This first dramatic encounter with good and evil never left him.

During WWII Weldon saw real evil, especially when Second Lieutenant Holland and his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, were caught behind enemy lines and to escape boarded an empty freight train that took them to a death camp that had been abandoned by the fleeing SS. Among a pile of emaciated bodies Weldon finds 23 year old Rosita Lowenstein who is just alive. Rosita is Jewish and had grown up in Madrid and her parents were famous Communists who fought for the Republic. Weldon and Hershell carry Rosita as she slowly regains her strength while they find the way back to their lines. They get parted when Weldon goes back to the front but his blooming attraction for for Rosita sends him across Europe after the war to find her again. They marry and return to Texas.

After the war Hershell encourages Weldon to seek their fortunes in the oil business using a new pipeline welding process. There they find different forms of evil in the greed of unfettered capitalism, corruption, bigotry, anti-semitism, anti-communism and violence that attack them from all angles. It is a new battle where people don't just want your possessions, they want your soul. Hershell's wife, Linda Gail, aspires to be a Hollywood actress and encounters similar demons along the way that impact on all of their lives.

They meet Roy Wiseheart (the "Wayfaring Stranger"), an enigmatic wealthy person with many business connections who has a questionable history as a war hero. Roy "befriends" them although it is not clear if he is friend or enemy. Roy's wife Clara is a bitter and intolerant anti-Semite who tries to make Weldon and Rosita’s life a nightmare. His father, Dalton, a totally unscrupulous oil baron, whose business strategy with difficult people is "make them wince", does the same.

As always JLB's superb descriptive prose is an outstanding feature of the book. The book is also filled with memorable characters. I especially liked Weldon's description of his commanding officer, Lloyd Fincher. "... Major Fincher is widely regarded as a dangerous idiot....someone said the German army has been trying to find him for years to award him the Iron Cross". Fincher is just as dangerous after the war when he offers to help Weldon's business.

The ending showed that under great stress good people will take action to protect themselves. It also demonstrates the power of love, the good that lies in most people, and that truth can sometimes win over direct action.

I am a fan of JLB and this is a landmark and very different novel by a master storyteller. It is part love story, part family/historical saga, part thriller and in total I consider it is a modern morality story. JLB is now 77 years old and I suspect that this is the book he has wanted to write for some time. It will certainly remain in my memory for some time. Highly recommended for discerning readers.

My thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for an advanced reading copy of this book for review.

James Lee Burke has been writing for almost half a century, but WAYFARING STRANGER is my first, and the highest praise I can offer is that it will not be my last. What a stunning introduction to Burke’s prose, a novel that mixes several potent ingredients into one hell of a tasty dish: a sprawling historical saga across decades of American history, a love story that never wallows in cliché, and a page-turner of the best variety; the kind that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills and exaggerated violence, rather a constant sense of foreboding. At its core, though, WAYFARING STRANGER is a novel about the good and evil in men’s hearts – and how events can force even the greatest of men to overlook their values, and the impact our past can have on our futures. When you push a good man into a corner, how does he respond?

Burke weaves several characters into his narrative. World War II veterans Weldon Holland and Hershel Pine enter the oil business after the war, utilizing German technology; a money-making business that’s bursting oppressive forces who want to see them fail. Then there’s Rosita Lowenstein, Holland’s wife, who Holland and Pine found in a deserted extermination camp, and is tarnished with the same brush as her communist family; a stain that’s impossibly to fully remove. Finally, Linda Gail, Pine’s wife, and blossoming Hollywood Actress, who combats demons of her own as she attempts to navigate the insane world of the stars. WAYFARING STRANGER paints extensive portraits of these characters as elements of their lives overlap, their stories eventually culminating in the novels’ pulse-pounding conclusion.

WAYFARING STRANGER is epic in scope; a novel that traverses decades, spotlighting the life and times of a man with seemingly infallible moral convictions, whose entire life is founded on one moment, from his childhood, when he fired at the rear window of Bonnie and Clyde’s absconding vehicle. There’s poetry in James Lee Burke’s prose, evident in Holland’s descriptions of his wife, Rosita, and the love he feels for his grandfather, a hard man, whose gruffness he has grown to appreciate. This is a powerful story, a true character study, and one that demands re-reading. WAYFARING STRANGER isn’t merely a great love story, a great historical saga, or a fast-paced thriller: it’s a wonderful novel, period. I couldn’t tell you if it’s one of James Lee Burke’s best, but if it’s not, my goodness, we’re going to need an amended star-rating system.