Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
“Burdy didn’t set out that morning aiming to get shot by the end of the day.” So begins Burdy (Mercer University Press, 2015), a sequel to Karen Spears Zacharias’s best-seller Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press, 2013). The title character does get shot in one of those increasingly common random mass shootings, yet this isn’t a story about violence. It’s rather a genuine, tender novel about broken people who fashion their own redemption with the love and help of others.
Zacharias is an exceptional storyteller and talented author with a grand gift for seeing into the souls of her characters and telling their stories with compassion and perception. So it is no surprise that in her latest work, she reaches into the heart of a small community and plucks out the truth, which she conveys with charm, wit, and insight.
As with Mother of Rain, Burdy is set in Christian Bend, a real community in east Tennessee. Zacharias captures the spirit of the locale perfectly—as well she might since she has family roots there. Her memoir, After the Flag Has Been Folded (HarperCollins, 2009), introduced Zacharias’s readers not only to Christian Bend, but also to her great aunt, Cil, short for Lucille. Aunt Cil, no doubt, is the inspiration for Burdy; both have the same physical description and both are the rock solid centers of their communities.
The fictional Burdy Luttrell, Melungeon by birth, has the gift of healing. Widowed young, she cares for Rain, a supposedly orphaned deaf boy raised in part by Burdy and the community of Christian Bend. Though she loves Rain deeply, Burdy has kept a vital secret from him for years. In a hidden spot in her house in Christian Bend, Burdy has lovingly kept letters from Zebulon, Rain’s father. Yet she has never revealed these letters to Rain, who like the rest of Christian Bend thinks his father long dead, a missing-in-action casualty of D-Day.
One day on her way to a conference on medicinal roots, Burdy stops in a store—and is shot. As Burdy lies gravely wounded in a hospital, her fight for life is sustained in no small measure by her conviction that she must now tell Rain about his father and give him the letters.
What Burdy knows about Zeb, and why she never told Rain that Zeb had not died on the beach at Normandy, is slowly revealed in a flashback sequence in which Burdy is a much younger woman when she received her first letter from Zeb. Before the letter, Burdy also believed Zeb to be a casualty of war. But his first letter reveals that he is living in France—though the correspondence reveals little else about him. This young Burdy has never traveled further from home than Bristol, Tennessee, yet she sets out to confront Zeb in France. Crossing the ocean, Burdy is befriended by a sophisticated couple who take her under their wings and help her on her way to finding Zeb.
Though Burdy is the primary voice in the story (both in contemporary time and during the flashback sequence), several of the chapters are written from Zeb’s point of view. Here, Zacharias is perhaps at her finest as a writer of great compassion and understanding. Consider the simplicity and impact of this passage:
In the courtyard of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Zeb sat hunched over, elbows to knees, cupping his left hand to catch the falling ashes from the cigarette he pinched between thumb and forefinger. … From the tree above them, another merle sang. When he first came to Bayeux, Zeb liked the stuttered cluck-and-trill of these black robins, but over time, the noise had come to annoy the hell out of him. The least bit of cheerfulness pissed Zeb off. Whenever he found himself in the presence of anyone happy, he walked away, afraid of what might happen if he didn’t.
Zeb, a soldier who landed on the beach on D-Day, has nearly been destroyed by his wartime experiences and their lingering memories. In the flashback sequences, Burdy does not know or use the term posttraumatic stress disorder. But Zeb suffers from this affliction, blaming himself unmercifully for the death of another soldier. Through the kindness of a Catholic priest and others in the French village, however, Zeb has fashioned a simple kind of life which he can tolerate—a life Burdy invades with her visit in the flashback sequences.
At its heart, Burdy is a story of kith and kin—the family one is born into and the family one creates in life. It is also, like Zacharaias’s debut memoir, After the Flag is Folded, the subtlest of anti-war books. Gentle, understated, heartfelt, and without arguments or politics, both the memoir and Burdy show in devastating clarity the damage war does not only to the soldiers who fight but also to the families of those soldiers.
Zacharias knows well and firsthand about the damage war does to families. Her father was killed in action in Vietnam, something she writes about with poignancy in After the Flag is Folded, which was first published as Hero Mama (William Morrow 2005).
A Georgia native, Zacharias now lives in Oregon, where among her many other activities she teaches English to high school students. She has received the Weatherford Award for Best in Appalachian Fiction and been named a finalist for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Her work has been featured on CNN as well as National Public Radio. Zacharias serves on a national advisory board for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation and the Vietnam Wall Memorial Foundation Education Center.
Like all of Zacharias’s books—fiction and nonfiction—Burdy is a gem, well worth owning and reading. From her memoir, After the Flag is Folded, to Mother of Rain and now Burdy, flows a continuity of place and people Karen Spears Zacharias clearly cherishes.