The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

I absolutely loved this book, it was such an immersive experience, I could feel myself slowing it right down not wanting it to end.

I read it over a weekend and what a memorable Sunday I spent reading through the 1930’s, every time a singer, song or musician was mentioned I could easily look them up, so I played Bessie Smith’s blues, watched Cab Calloway sing and dance Minnie the Moocher, listened to Lucille Hegamin and admired Bill Robinson’s stair dance.

What makes this work of historical fiction even more interesting, is that it was inspired by a number of the author’s own family and ancestors. With an interest in geneaolgy that has seen her collecting bits and pieces of their stories for over 20 years and an interest in the little known dark history of black people in Europe who were snatched by the Nazis and thrown into camps, she weaves the thread of a what had been a developing story into that of her own family, with a version of her mysterious grandfather Harold (who becomes Harlan) in the lead.

I love stories. I love backstories. I don’t want to just give you character and not give you the background of the character, for me a story is like a tree, where you have the bark, the limbs and the roots and I need to be able to put all that down on paper. Bernice McFadden

McFadden writes short three page chapters and doesn’t waste words, she’s descriptive, informative, atmospheric and knows how to move a story along through time with sufficient essential and sensory detail to create well formed characters and a sense of place.

Emma is the youngest child and only daughter of the Reverend, who installed her as lead organist in the church from the age of seven. She and Lucille, her choir singing best friend secretly love another type of music, demonized by the Reverend.

On the outside, Emma didn’t seem to want for anything, but let’s be clear – she was starving on the inside. Not the coal-burning-belly type of hunger of the destitute, but the agonizing longing of a free spirit, caged.

Harlan is her son, an only child his story begins in 1917 Macon, Georgia where he will spend his formative years with his grandparents while his parents seek their fortune elsewhere, intending to send for him. By they time that happens he doesn’t want to leave, but the bright lights of New York and an introduction to the musical world of his mother’s friend Lucille, help him adjust.

Lucille’s choir singing pays off, she becomes the second African-American blues singer to record; when Harlan drops out of school at 16 she proposes to his concerned mother that she take him on tour, with his guitar. Being on the road changes him, exposing him to things that seduce and overwhelm him that he indulges anyway, though shocked to find Lucille has her limits to her tolerance, and packs him off home.

When Sam comes home and finds his wife in tears, we learn it is September 1937 and Bessie Smith (43), Empress of the Blues, has sung her last lament.

At this point the story line swerves and introduces us to another family, we meet sisters Gwen and Irene, their mother Ethel and father Aubrey, fresh off the boat from Barbados.

The memories of the crossing, those first hard years, were still fresh in Ethel’s mind; she could recall them with ease, as if she’d just stepped off the ship last week.

Gwen takes classes at the Mary Bruce School of Dance and after a short while her parents receive a letter suggesting that she might better suited to tap dancing than ballet, which delights her, as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was her hero.

Gwen had gone to see the movie The Little Colonel four times, committing to memory Robinson’s famous step dance, which she then reenacted for her parents, Mary Bruce, and anyone else willing to sit and watch.

We come to know the family and observe Gwen resist and then fall for Harlan’s charms.

Harlan meets Leo, a musician everyone calls Lizard and they start a band together, his life gets back on track, even if his habits don’t change much. Lizard’s story is unique, he and Harlan are bound together by some strange twist of fate, a connection that will run deep and silent within Harlan his entire life, until finally he is released from the pain of it.

When Harlan and Lizard respond to an invitation from Eugène Jacques Bullard to come to Paris and play in his club in Montmartre, it’s like a dream come true, except that it was the wrong time in history (1942) to be hanging around a city that was about to come under occupation. Paris became a life changing moment for both of them.

With the arrival of Harlan’s band and others, Montmartre came alive again. For a while, the threat of war between Germany and Great Britain had scattered the musicians like ants.
The Zazous took their name after Cab Calloway’s hit “Zaz Zuh Zaz.” They’d thoroughly immersed themselves in swing culture, going so far as adopting Calloway’s style of dress, gliding back-step dance moves, and hep language.

A Little Historical Diversion

Black American singers, dancers, entertainers and jazz musicians found Europe in general and Paris in particular, a congenial place to live and work, settling there for much of the interwar years, developing a thriving expat cultural community in Montmartre. It is towards this ideal that Harlan is drawn, convincing his more reticent friend to follow.

Eugène Jacques Bullard left America for France at a young age, inspired by the words of his father (from Martinique, enslaved in Haiti, he took refuge with and married a Native American of the Creek tribe) who said to his son « un homme y était jugé par son mérite et non pas par la couleur de sa peau » that a man was judged there by his merit and not by the colour of his skin.

A French foreign legionnaire, he became the world’s first black fighter pilot, fighting with the French Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI. After the war, inspired by his love of music, he founded the nightclub l’Escadrille in Montmartre, a beacon for artists and musicians who discovered an established black community in a part of Paris similar to the population of Harlem, a village within a village.

By the time Harlan returns to New York, he is a shadow of his former self due to what he endured. McFadden adeptly takes us through the following years referencing significant moments of the collective history, bringing Harlan’s story full circle.

Bernice L. McFadden’s ancestors are named at the back of the book as are some of the musicians, dancers and singers who make an appearance. By the end, I just wanted Harlan to be safe and it was with some relief that I read the closing chapters and wondered if that was the true version of events or the life-saving imagination of Ms McFadden.

It left me wanting to know more about some of the characters, as some threads are left hanging, but in all it is a wonderful tribute to a family history and a remarkable capturing of the period of time they lived through. A brilliant, entertaining, informative story and a unique reading experience, accompanied as it was for me by all that music and dance.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My Review of Praise Song For the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

6 thoughts on “The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

  1. Pingback: Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes – Word by Word

  2. Pingback: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010) – Word by Word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s