Attica Locke became a writer on Texas Highway 59, riding up from Houston every other week to visit relatives living in Coldspring, Lufkin, and Marshall. Too young to drive and too carsick to read, she spent those hours on the road imagining stories set amid the pine trees, hamlets, and bayous they passed. Her latest novel Bluebird, Bluebird pays tribute to those East Texas sojourns with a thriller highlighting its people and their passions.
Much of the story unfolds in and around Geneva Sweet Sweets, a clapboard cafe in a truckstop town where two bodies—one black and one white—have just turned up. Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, a stoic law school dropout with a penchant for booze and a predilection for danger, is on the case. He grapples with his dual identity as a black man and a law man while investigating the case, whose racial overtones others would rather he ignored.
The fictional restaurant was inspired by the real one Locke’s great grandmother Fannie Sweats owned in Corrigan, Texas. From slavery on, both sides of Locke’s family settled in East Texas, unwilling to cede their claims to the land despite the onslaught of racial violence and intimidation they faced. Locke dedicates the novel to these forebears—“men and women who said no”—and lends the novel’s black Texans a measure of their fortitude and grace.
The character Darren is the latest in a line, six generations long, of black people who refused to give in to white hatred in Texas. The dragging death and decapitation of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas, sends him home from school in Chicago and into a career in law enforcement. He wanted his boots—cowhide or gator—on the ground to protect black lives.
“It was a calling,” Darren said. “It was a line in the sand for me, a line past which we just weren’t gon’ go, not on my watch. The badge was to say this land is my land, too, my state, my country, and I’m not gon’ be run off. I can stand my ground, too. My people built this, and we’re not going anywhere.”
“We’ve always thought of stand your ground in this ugly way,” Locke says about her character’s stance. “We’re thinking of [George] Zimmerman, that crazy man down in Florida who shot a teenager—people using stand your ground against black folks. For me, I was thinking of a different kind of Texas history, which is, I’m not going to be run off. You don’t get to define what this great state is. And by you, I mean racists or members of the Klan, any of that.”
Though its message is clear, Bluebird, Bluebird never sacrifices action for social commentary. At one point, Darren saunters into a bar full of white supremacists, orders a bourbon, neat, and leaves a twenty on the counter to indicate he means to stay awhile. A bartender asks if he’s lost. He replies, “Not even a little bit,” gives her a glimpse of the leather holster of his .45 and toasts to open carry. Even out of uniform with a tarnished badge languishing in the glove compartment of his car, he exudes defiant self-reliance. A Texan through and through.
“I 100 percent start with story,” Locke says. “I 100 percent know that my first job is to entertain and that the best thing that I can do is find ways that in the entertainment, in the setup itself, is the conflict or the ideological thing that I’m wrestling with.”
Entertainment may lead, but empathy and understanding are sure to follow. The mystery’s resolution turns on love and human connection. “There’s a line in the book where Darren realizes he’s made a mistake and had forgotten that the first human impulse was love, not hate,” she says. “I hope that the idea that people take away from it is that we are all family. Period. We all as a nation are family. We all as southerners are family.”
Maya Payne Smart is a writer living in Austin.