A native of Houston, Attica Locke lives in Los Angeles, where she has worked as a successful screenwriter and producer. She is also a talented novelist who returned to Texas for the 2018 San Antonio Book Festival, where she discussed her Edgar-Award winning detective novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, on a panel I moderated.
I recall how Locke reaffirmed her support as an African American writer for an especially powerful moment in Bluebird, Bluebird that I asked her about. The central character in the novel is Darren Mathews, an African American man who, after graduating from Princeton and starting law school, returns to his East Texas birthplace to become a Texas Ranger. Despite his badge, Mathews brushes up against prejudice everywhere he goes, particularly as he investigates the vicious Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Even though Mathews has other options, he is committed to staying and fighting for racial justice. He stands firm against the extremists he is challenging, and he vows, “They don’t get to decide what this place is. This is my home, too.”
Mathews’ determination to achieve justice in his home state despite the obstacles in the way gets tested in Locke’s superb new novel Heaven, My Home, the next installment in what Locke calls her Highway 59 series. Although Heaven, My Home stands on its own, it also effectively picks up where Bluebird, Bluebird ends. Suspicion lingers that Mathews mishandled a homicide case to protect a family friend as a hostile district attorney keeps raising skeptical questions about the case while admiring the Texas A&M class ring on his right hand. Tensions persist in Mathews’ marriage and in his relationship with his mother. He continues to pursue charges against the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas as he serves on a task force that is redoubling its efforts to get an indictment of the group.
The task force is working with new urgency because of an unsettling new development. It’s December 2016 and Donald Trump has been elected president. A barn with Trump’s face on it and other allusions to the presidential election lurk in the background of Bluebird, Bluebird but that novel ends before Nov. 8. Now, as the newly elected president prepares to take office, the FBI is speeding up its investigation of white supremacist groups because it can’t be confident the new administration will bless its work. Incidents of hate-fueled violence against black people and others are already rising, and racial tensions, for once thought to be ebbing, are heating up. Uneasiness with what lies ahead leads Mathews’ supervisor to assign him to a case that could help expedite an indictment of the brotherhood. The case involves a missing 9-year old boy, Levi King, whose father thinks his son is alive and desperately wants him to be found. The father is also an Aryan Brotherhood of Texas captain currently in jail. Nothing is certain, but maybe the father’s love of his son will pay off in cooperation if Mathews can find the boy.
Mathews’ investigation of this case drives Heaven, My Home and makes it a first-rate detective story full of memorable characters, unanticipated twists, and vivid writing. Most of the action takes place around Hopetown, a small rural community near Caddo Lake where freed slaves settled after the Civil War, only to be joined by some univited white nationalist families, including the Kings, who set up a trailer park there. Locke retells the complex history of Hopetown at greater length than I would like but in general the plot moves at a brisk pace, as Mathews searches for the missing child.
In this search, Mathews encounters distrust wherever he turns: from Levi’s family, from local law enforcement officials, from an FBI agent who has been his friend for years, from wary black residents of Hopetown. Locke’s sharp observations show how racially charged suspicions can cloud personal relationships and unsettle everyday exchanges. She pictures Mathews constantly gauging where he stands with others and how he judges them. He can’t assume anything about anybody, despite the shortcuts race seems to offer. The pleas of Levi’s father on behalf of his son end up feeling “as real to [Mathews] as the same man’s history of racial vitriol and violence.” The unexpected support he gets from his white supervisor might be due to genuine respect or to the fact that a white child is missing – or maybe both.
Mathews struggles not only with figuring out others but also with understanding what he can accomplish in a country that has disappointed him. He’s disillusioned by the election, feeling that “in an act of blind fury, white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love – simply because they were being asked to share it.” At a crucial point in the novel, no longer sure “that the universe bent toward justice,” Mathews contemplates bending the rules that as an officer of the law he’s always played by and letting a worthy end justify some questionable means. But he’s not certain he should leave behind his values even though the election has betrayed them. He feels drawn to a past “when there was no sense of right and wrong” – only survival – “when it came to dealing with white folks.” But he isn’t sure that he is living in such a time or that he should abandon his moral compass even if he is.
What can Mathews still hope to achieve in the East Texas small towns he’s so attached to? Is the boy he is looking for fated to perpetuate the racism of his father? Or is progress possible?
Instead of resolving Mathews’ internal struggle, the ending of the novel compounds it, setting up another novel in this compelling series.
Although some readers may find this lack of resolution frustrating, I think Heaven, My Home deserves credit for raising difficult questions and not settling for easy answers. Commenting on one of her earlier books, Locke notes, “I think I get away with a lot of political stuff because of the presence of a dead body. If you have familiar signposts along the way … readers get comfortable, and then you can slide in all this other material.” She’s right. You can read Heaven, My Home solely for its suspense, strong characters, and keenly observed settings, and come away satisfied. You can also appreciate all the other material Locke slides in – the sobering political stuff about race, democracy, and justice – and you’ll gain new insight into the challenging times we’re living in. Heaven, My Home is that good.