Let me be one of the many people to fall in line applauding the miraculous work that is The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden. I’m am always one to support books that dip into the unexpected. And we’re not talking mysteries or murders (thought this book certainly has both). I’m referring to pieces of literature that don’t tell a story you expect to hear; subject that you weren’t even sure existed or had never thought about.
In its simplest of descriptions: The Book of Harlan is the story of a young Black man named Harlan from Harlem (yeah, I know) who finds himself kidnapped and interned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. There are an unknown number of books, both fiction non-fiction, on World War II in general and the Holocaust. But how many stories have you heard of other people groups, besides those of Jewish faith and decent, being rounded up and hauled off to unknown terrors. I’ll be the first to say, this was a news flash for me. The line starts here!
Before we get into unpacking this more, a little on the author Bernice McFadden. To start with, A: BRILLIENT. B. GORGEOUS. For those looking for a little more about her #BlackGirlMagic, BERNICE L. McFADDEN is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. She is a three-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA). And if that wasn’t enough, she is committed to the belief that:
“'I write to breathe life back into memory.”
That is exactly what she has done in The Book of Harlan. The Washington Post was spot on in their critic:
“This is a story about the triumph of the human spirit over bigotry, intolerance and cruelty, and at the center of “The Book of Harlan” is the restorative force that is music. “~Eugenia Zukerman, April 2016
To break that down a little bit further-
“the human spirit over bigotry”: This story isn’t just an overcome story for its title sake, Harlan, who certainly overcomes more in his lifetime than most do in several. However, McFadden gives us a glimpse into the human spirit of very major character at play here. Staring with Harlan’s mother and the life she so desperately dreamed of out of the Bible-belt of Southern society and the way of life set forth by her reverend father. To the break out singer who rises from rural country obscurity into international superstardom, then falls right back to Earth. And even to include the tortured women (and their children) for whom the adversity of other people creates adversity for them.
Quick Sidebar analysis: I realized much later in thinking back on this book, a sneaky but incredibly important use of sophisticated allegory being used here. Harlan’s grandparents live simple, Christian lives. They do good things, and are good people. They love each other, they love their children, they love their grandchildren. They are the perfect picture. What a beautifully delicious piece of critical storytelling for them to live their lives by the Bible and get to die lovingly and peacefully in their sleep. However, Harlan’s parents reject that lifestyle and find nothing but struggles and poverty moving from place to place all of over the country until they finally settle in Harlem. But though, their life in Harlem is much more stable, and to some degree even conformable, it was never without its dramatic fires (hint hint towards a horrifying and traumatic chapter involving a fire). But in a sheer streak of poetry, McFadden makes a very poignant alignment with the fates of those who do not walk the straight and narrow path laid out in the Gospels.
One final note that I will make, without trying to give too much away is a truly appreciative and respectful nod towards the sheer talent of McFadden’s writing style in this novel. The book does not linger. It moves quickly and you need to be prepared to move with it. To give you a point of reference, the book in total is only 342 pages but covers the lifespan of almost 4 generations of people, the Golden Age of Jazz in Harlem and Paris, life and trauma of a Black American man in a German concentration camp, the years of PTSD that this man struggles though, and a couple of “wait what?!” final-page plot twists. Also, I always have immense respect for authors that force me to double back and question what I had read. There were certainly a few final thrills and surprises that I hadn’t realized had happened until discussing the book with friends after finishing it. #RESPECT
Essentially, hats of and many congratulations to Bernice McFadden on an intricate and beautiful piece of storytelling. And for those of you left considering whether or not to pick this one off the shelves, do yourself a favor and trust me on this one.