Purple Cane Road Themes
by James Lee Burke

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Purple Cane Road Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Burke revisits some of his most important themes in Purple Cane Road, particularly that of the significance of close, interpersonal relationships to help combat the inherently corruptible institutions forced upon individuals by society. Thus, Robicheaux, a man who clearly believes in and values the spiritual, is deeply suspicious of institutionalized religion, even holding it in contempt. He suggests to more than one character the cleansing of the conscience that religion can sometimes offer, but considers the representatives of a Christian cable television channel "exploitative charlatans." He resents the pollution of his home state inflicted by the oil industry, but particularly the fact that neither the federal nor the state government regulates such activity adequately—or even at all—because of the importance of oil money both for political campaigns and for helping to maintain a strong economy and, thus, reelection of incumbent candidates. One such incumbent, Belmont Pugh, represents the institution of government in his decision to sacrifice Letty Labiche, whose sentence he has the power to commute, for political expediency.

In fact, the idea of Labiche's execution as political currency exemplifies Burke's indictment of those who would make commodities of human beings. The opening chapter in the novel includes a description of the Labiche family patriarch, Jubal Labiche, "a French-educated mulatto" who "both owned and rented slaves and worked them unmercifully and supplied much of the brick for the homes of his fellow slave owners." The parents of Letty and Passion Labiche both worked as procurers, and many of the women in the novel are or have been prostitutes—Robicheaux even fears that his mother might have been "in the life" before her murder. Vachel Carmouche treats both Labiche twins as his property, exploiting them until he moves away after losing his job, and it is his apparent resumption of such activity with another young girl upon his return to New Iberia leads to his murder. Johnny Remata, the young hit man in the novel, also suffers exploitation by two pedophiles as a young boy, and later by fellow prison inmates as an adult. His hatred of his mother, who Remata blames for allowing his father to sell him to the pedophiles for alcohol, drives much of his homicidal impulse.

Burke also comments on race throughout the novel in the matter-of-fact manner common to his work. His description of Louisiana includes racism because racism exists more openly in his Louisiana than in many other places. Burke apparently feels no need to preach on the subject, however, accepting its evil nature as given and allowing his more sympathetic characters to form important relationships across racial lines, thus doing what they can to heal the schism. Therefore, while acknowledging a business owner who in the 1960s "would not allow people of color to even stand in line with whites, requiring them instead to wait in the concourse until no other customers were inside," Burke also allows a nurturing relationship between the Creole Passion Labiche and the Irish Clete Purcel. Moreover, Robicheaux's own life reflects something of Burke's multicultural ideal—he has an African-American employee whom he treats more like a partner, a woman partner on the police force, and an adopted Hispanic daughter, all of whom live in harmony—or, at least, in as much harmony as Burke portrays as possible in Louisiana.

Burke also investigates the nature of the past and its affect on the present. He may declare the past "meaningless and unthreatening," but he describes it as neither. Robicheaux spends the novel investigating two crimes, both of which occurred in the relatively distant past, as far as criminal investigations generally go—the eight-year-old murder of Vachel Carmouche and the thirty-year-old murder of Robicheaux's mother, Mae. This leads to entire chapters of history involving both deaths, and the events leading up to them. Robicheaux...

(The entire section is 1,135 words.)