cover image The Book of Harlan

The Book of Harlan

Bernice L. McFadden. Akashic, $16.95 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-61775-446-3

McFadden (Gathering of Waters) centers this novel on Harlan Elliott, a musician who faces extreme hardship. The book begins in 1917 in Macon, Georgia, where Emma grows up with her friend Lucille, and eventually meets her future husband, Sam. Emma and Sam conceive Harlan and shuttle to different cities so Emma can attempt to follow her dreams of being a musician; Harlan is raised by his grandparents until his grandfather, a respected minister in Macon, dies. He is then taken by his parents to be raised in Harlem and mentored by Lucille, a successful blues singer who somewhat recalls Alberta Hunter. Harlan finds women, music between a guitar's strings, and marijuana during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. As he begins to gain attention as a musician with his friend Lizard, they are invited to perform in the Parisian enclave of Montmartre as tensions are rising in Europe. Unfortunately, bad timing and na%C3%AFvet%C3%A9 lead to Harlan and Lizard being thrown into Buchenwald, one of Germany's concentration camps. After Harlan faces the horrors of Buchenwald, his life becomes a series of struggles, not just in Germany but back in America as well. Through this character portrait of Harlan, McFadden has constructed a vivid, compelling narrative that makes historical fiction an accessible, literary window into the African-American past and some of the contemporary dilemmas of the present. (May)