World-building and Geography in Fiction

Some authors have an innate ability to create an instant rapport with me. Their words, compounds and elements, with pages as catalyst, crystallize in my mind. James Lee Burke is such an author. I discovered him a year ago, or so, after finishing another series of character-based novels, and wanting to develop a new reading relationship. “Last Car to Elysian Fields” was my first Burke novel, though not his first Dave Robicheaux novel. But, James can write; his stories are rich with history, geography, interesting characters with human foibles. Like a bowl of New Orleans jambalaya, Burke stories are great melange of sights, flavors, and aromas.

“In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)” makes for a nice exploration of geography in a literary effort. Burke’s writing is infused with geography. His very first opening sentence, in fact, describes the effect of a recent storm passing over New Iberia, Main Street, and Bayou Teche. Dave was on his way to collect three crayfish dinners, the air “cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo,” with the recent death of a young girl on his mind.

Many authors build a unique world for characters. These worlds are amalgams of real places, places which seem familiar to us, yet have different toponyms (place name). Towns, streets, and businesses have their names changed, maybe to protect the guilty or the innocent. Some places are legendary, such as the Cafe du Monde, in New Orleans. No story about New Orleans would seem credible if the characters did not stop for chicory coffee and beignets. In “A Stained White Radiance,” Sheriff Dave Robicheaux sits to think and people watch at Cafe du Monde while running errands through the French Quarter. Dave also has a history as a former NOLA police officer before becoming a Deputy Sheriff and detective in New Iberia Parish. I have a personal connection with Robicheaux, as I have walked some of the very same paths, and, yes, eaten warm, sweet beignets with coffee at Cafe du Monde a few times.

New Iberia is a real place. I’ve clipped an image from Google Earth to provide a bird’s eye view of the city of 30,000 and home to Dave Robicheaux, Louisiana detective, sheriff, and former NOLA police officer. Bayou Teche is nearby, the thin green cord entering the image in the lower-right and exiting in the upper-right. Bayou Teche figures prominently in all of JLB’s books I’ve read, to date. Good place for a body to be discovered. Or, in some cases, for body parts to be discovered, as the area is renown for alligators. New Iberia figures as Det. Robicheaux’s home, office, and plays a center part in all stories, serving as a home base of operations for all action. However, not all action occurs in New Iberia.

I’ve provided a smaller scale image depicting the larger region found in Burke’s novels. In the northwest is the town of Breaux Bridge. South of Breaux Bridge is St. Martinsville. Main Highway, or HWY 31 connects St. Martinsville to New Iberia. Lafayette and Broussard are short drives to the northwest of New Iberia. Morgan City and Jeanrette fall off the image to the southeast.

The large green area consuming 1/2 the right-hand portion of the image is portion of the Atchafalaya Swamp, and the Atchafalaya River runs from north to south through the swamp. Both the swamp and the river become characters, or almost so, in the Robicheaux books I’ve read so far. Each has sounds, odors, histories –  a presence, really – which seems to drive James Lee Burkes characters into desperate acts of violence and self-destruction.

The last image I present is Angola State Penitentiary. Today, Angola is known as, “Louisiana State Penitentiary.” Angola is located at the elbow of Louisiana, northeast of New Iberia. Not long ago, Angola was referred to as “Alcatraz of the South,” and is currently the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Over 5,000 inmates call the 18,000 acre facility home, and about 1,800 people punch a clock at Angola. Angola features prominently in Burke’s novels due to the fantastic history of the prison, and the plantation grounds upon which the prison now sits. Angola has featured in many songs, by Leadbelly, Freddy Fender, and Aaron Neville (wikipedia). Burke serves up Angola as a source of trouble, former felons who have been released only to turn up in New Iberia or Breaux Bridge or Morgan City and unable to find an honest income.

James Lee Burke’s novels featuring Dave Robicheaux are compelling reading. The real-life geography and history Burke weaves into his stories make his tales even more enjoyable. Robicheaux often recites histories of his time spent in New Orleans, working a beat, walking the streets of the French Quarter and the Garden District. Having been those places myself, I feel part of the story, part of the events, and even though events portrayed are fictional, I’m instantly connected to the milieu of Det. Robicheaux. I envy those writers who can tightly combine history, social commentary, the physical setting and geography, and complex characters in such captivating way.

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