James Lee Burke
This week’s Saturday Short Story is a particularly interesting one to me because it is one of the earlier pieces of James Lee Burke’s writing to feature the Holland family that has become such an important part of Burke’s work since 1997. “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans” was first published in the Atlantic in 1980 and is also the first story in a compilation of James Lee Burke short stories titled The Convict and Other Stories from 1985. From what I can tell, the only older Burke writing featuring one or another branch of the Hollands is the 1971 novel Lay Down My Sword and Shield.
The story is set close to 1947 Yoakum, Texas, and its narrator is a high school kid trying to earn some cash by spending his summer picking tomatoes in the fields belonging to the town’s only Baptist preacher. Hack, as he is known to his friends, also has his eye on a young Mexican girl working the same job, and finally finds the nerve to ask her to accompany him to the local root beer stand. But 1947 Yoakum is not ready to accept that kind of biracial relationship, and because Juanita’s father is also an organizer for the pickers union, it is inevitable that Hack will pay a heavy price for his tolerance.
It doesn’t take long for Hack and his Uncle Sidney Holland to pay that price. One gets the tar beaten out of him; the other has a huge cross burned on his property during the early morning hours. Those familiar with the various branches and generations of the Holland family featured in Burke’s later novels already know, however, that this is not going to end well for the racist teens and their cross-burning elders. Just not going to happen.
James Lee Burke had been a published author since at least 1965 but in relative terms he had published very little (three novels and perhaps a handful of short stories) prior to “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans.” Burke has become a fairly prolific writer since those early years, and is now known primarily for his long crime series featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. He has, however, not published a Robicheaux novel since 2013 and seems now to be focusing on standalone novels featuring various members of the Holland family (Billy Bob, Hackberry, or Weldon).
“Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans,” early as it is in the evolution of the Holland family story, holds up very well and should not be missed by James Lee Burke fans.