That James Lee Burke’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield is back in print will be of particular interest to Burke fans who know Hackberry Holland only from last year’s Rain Gods. By the time of Rain Gods, Hack Holland is a grizzled old Texas lawman still not ready to call it quits even though he is in his early seventies. But in 1971’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield, the only other novel featuring Hack Holland, he is a young Texas lawyer being courted for a run at the U.S. Congress - hopefully, to fill the very spot once held by his father.
Even as a young man, though, Hack Holland is damaged goods, already suffering many of the anxieties and weaknesses that will haunt him and shape him into the man he will be almost forty years later. Hack is one of those Korean War veterans with the unfortunate experience of having been captured and imprisoned by the Chinese during the war. What happened to him inside that prison, told primarily in one long, flashback chapter, is something that often still wakes him in a drenching sweat during the middle of the night.
Hack Holland is a heavy drinker. He uses alcohol to help him make it through the night, and he uses it to help him tolerate the people he deals with during the day. Hack has an attitude problem when it comes to certain kinds of people: powerbrokers, society uppity-ups, bigots, phonies, and anyone else who tries to tell him what to do. Luckily for him, he has enough money to get away with not trying too hard to hide his feelings. But hide his feelings is exactly what he will have to do if he is serious about becoming a United States congressman.
If nothing else, Hack Holland is loyal to his friends, especially those he knows from his time in Korea. Now one of those old friends is in bad trouble down in South Texas, having been convicted of assaulting a peace officer while walking a picket line in support of higher wages for migrant farm workers. Hack heads that way, intending to do little more than file an appeal for his old friend, but he soon finds himself walking that same picket line and in the same trouble as the friend he is there to rescue. Perhaps because of his own prisoner-of-war experiences, Hack cannot resist coming to the defense of the underdog – and it doesn’t hurt, too, that he is strongly attracted to a beautiful young organizer he meets in that little South Texas town. Hack Holland is, first and foremost, about ensuring justice for those too weak to fight for it themselves, and he will fight until he drops.
Lay Down My Sword and Shield tells a powerful story, especially when dealing with Hack Holland’s war experiences and the brutality suffered by those walking the picket line, but it does not exhibit the keen storytelling skills longtime James Lee Burke readers have come to expect. The book is, at times, overburdened by its long, descriptive set-up passages, making it a somewhat more difficult book to read than the ones for which Burke deservingly has become so well known. Even so, Burke fans should not miss this one.