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

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?