From judicial murder to fanatical terrorism.
From the opening pages of Look Away, Dixieland, with a rigged court martial and judicial murder in America’s war torn southern states in 1865, to the book’s fast-paced final chapters in 2009-10, Michael Burr takes his readers far beyond the mere facts of events in the American Civil War and deep into the destructive, obsessive mind of a man who is still fighting that war in our times.
Look Away, Dixieland portrays the final months of the Civil War from the Confederate point of view, as described in an account written by Jim Shields, a Virginian cavalryman who survived the war and founded a family tradition which is still respected four generations later in the 21st century. Through Shield’s story, Burr breathes life into the Southerners, both military and civilian, who inhabited the states of America which became known as Dixie. As Shields’ story unfolds, we learn of the brave and tragic events leading up to the fabricated charges of desertion and treason, and resulting execution of his friend and fellow cavalryman, Billy Brodie. Jim Shields and Billy Brodie are the heroes of their cavalry unit, while cowardice, bullying brutality, over-zealous patriotism and non-acceptance of the South’s defeat are embodied in the family of Abner Quealey and his equally obnoxious son, Amos. When Jim Shields’ journal is discovered in 2010 and found to contain a mystery, who better to solve it than the brilliant duo of his History lecturer great-great grandson, Brodie Shields and criminologist Ellen Newstrom! However, in setting out to unravel the journal’s riddle, Brodie and Ellen put themselves on a deadly collision course with the latest incarnation of the wicked Abner and Amos Quealey. Hartford Quealey is in fact masterminding a series of terrorist acts aimed at forcing the American government to grant long-awaited self-government to the southern Dixie states.
History enthusiast Burr has combined his passion for- and knowledge of events with his strong belief that those events are more memorable when seen through the eyes of the fleshed-out ordinary people who participated in them: an approach which, in Look Away, Dixieland, very effectively takes the dryness out of the bare bones of the facts. His Confederate characters are convincing and likable and blend fluidly with his present-day Quealey and cohorts who are chillingly hateful. I found the relationship between Brodie IV and Ellen rather soppy and self-congratulatory but this is a minor irritation in a cleverly told story. In the final pages of the book, Burr builds tension with a series of short, snappy chapters. Brodie and Ellen survive Look Away, Dixieland by an almost comical chain of events, and just when our guard is down, thinking Ha, ha! They were lucky to get out of that alive, Burr takes us by surprise and winds the suspense up again to the final dramatic scenes.
Look Away, Dixieland is a great read in the genre of faction or fictionalised fact – a gripping historical-contemporary thriller combined with a sweet and tragic 19th century romance. It will have curious readers reaching for their encyclopaedias/search engines to refresh the lyrics of Dixie and confirm the exact position of the Mason-Dixon line. At the same time, Look Away, Dixieland is thought-provoking: to paraphrase Burr’s quote from Marie-Jeanne Phlippon Roland, What crimes will still be committed in your name, oh Liberty?
It’s good to know that Burr has other historical novels in the pipeline, including one set in New Zealand’s not so distant past.
Review written by Carolyn McKenzie
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