The Book of Harlan
by Bernice L. McFadden
Akashic | 2016
Paperback: 400 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review Source: ARC from publisher for unbiased opinion.
Harlan Elliott arrived on Christmas Eve, right there on the parlor floor between the piano and the Christmas tree …
[He] kept his eyes closed for two whole months…Considering how his life would turn out, perhaps Harlan knew, even in infancy, just what the universe had in store for him.
I have struggled for days over this review. Not that I didn’t like the book or had any trouble finishing it; the pages seem to turn themselves. I loved it. The chapters were short (and presented in the third person). The difficulty arises because there is so much to discuss! The book’s timeline spans everything from the end of slavery to the moon landing. There were so many themes! Blues/Jazz, Racial discrimination, Abandonment, Drugs, Cultural Identity, War/Holocaust et al.
Harlan’s life is sprinkled through world events like one of those children’s popup books. Each time he pops up, it’s been years since we last heard about him. Harlan repeatedly faces life altering challenges, mostly brought on by himself and a few hoisted on him by society. As he plows through other people’s lives in his devil-may-care attitude, he leaves heartbreak and sorrow in his wake. There were times I would like to have reached through the page and played wack-a-mole to get him to grow up.
A number of interesting characters intersect Harlan’s path. Gwen, a naive girl, misunderstanding that sex is not love. Lizard, lost in his cultural identity but tied to Harlan through their mutual love of music. Lucille, his mother’s best friend whose living large life plays an important role in so many ways. His “Banty rooster” mother, Emma and his hardworking father, Sam, desperate to help Harlan overcome his demons. John Smith, a childhood friend, who Harlan loves like a brother from another mother. And my favorite, Louis Armstrong, whose heart and soul makes everyone’s day beautiful.
[The Harlam band bus arrived in Augusta, Georgia and discovered all the colored-only hotels full. As the band prepared to settle in their bus seats for the night, Harlan sleepily says…]
“We passed a hotel not a mile down the road with a vacancy sign! Boy, this ain’t Harlem…This here is Jim Crow territory…That sign is for white-folks only.”
Harlan’s grandfather, The Reverend T.M. Robinson of the Cotton Way Baptist Church in Macon, GA had come a long way from his slavery days in Charleston. The Reverend had hitched his star to Jesus and in no time his successful ministry provided a high quality life for his wife and children in the “highfalutin” colored section of town.
The Robinson’s youngest child, Emma, a gifted pianist, enjoyed the niceties provided by her father’s success but somewhere in the mystery of conception had picked up some stray gene that drove her to sample the seamier side of life. When her biological timer went off in her teen years, she began a secret relationship with Sam Elliott, a local carpenter. The lovebirds kept their tryst going right up until she blew her father’s mind with the news she would need a shotgun wedding.
The teenage newlyweds weren’t ready for adulthood let alone parenting. Emma’s itch to leave Macon was stronger than her need to care for her new child. They had no clue where they were headed but it had to be out of Georgia and that meant leaving little Harlan to be raised in the same environment she was escaping.
Harlan, much like his mother, enjoyed a carefree life in the Robinson home. He learned early on that he liked getting his own way and to hell with everyone else’s feelings. His grandparent’s failure to hold him accountable for his behavior or to develop empathy and compassion would haunt all his future relationships. He achieved his happiness by modeling his grandfather’s self-important behavior. (This self-aggrandized manner would later drag friends into situations they would most likely never do otherwise.) When he was 11, his beloved grandfather died. This death and the unexpected decision by his grieving grandmother to hand him over to his parents care marked the first of many times he would be forced to forge “a new life.”
Sam, Emma and Harlan moved to the epicenter for Negro jazz and blues music, Harlem. Emma had big dreams of emulating her best friend, Lucille, a popular Negro recording singer, making her mark in the heady world of the Harlem Renaissance.
While living in Harlem, Harlan discovered his inherited music talent following in love with the guitar. When he dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a musical career, Lucille took him on band tours through the United States. With little supervision and poor adult role models, Harlan found drugs, alcohol and sex. These new vices drew him deeper and deeper in their grasp until he no longer was reliable to the band. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you; Lucille fired him.
While nursing a grudge, Harlan befriends another musician named Lizard and in time the two form the Harlem World Band. In 1940, the band headlines at a cabaret in France. The group is shocked to see that Paris is colorblind with no whites-only barriers. But there is the unsettling concern among the French citizenry that the marauding Nazis might choose to invade France. Harlen sees the music still playing and the booze flowing and believes he will be long gone before trouble arrives.
When trouble arrives shockingly quick, the Nazi flag and soldiers fill the streets, Harlan refuses to take it seriously. He has a ticket booked on a steamer for New York in a couple of days. Harlan sweet talks his terrified friends into partying heartily right up until the time to leave. Heading back to the hotel after a crazy night of partying, a man steps from the shadows and asks for a light. The rest of the group recognizes the Nazi uniform and senses the danger but Harlan, as usual, has to pull the tiger’s tail. In the may-lei, the women race away but Harlan and Lizard are beaten and taken captive.
Harlan and Lizard are sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp where they encounter the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, the wife of the Commandant. Ilse Koch loves to torture and she does it so well. This portion of the book is heavy and hard to read. Harlan survives five years of torture before the Allies rescue him.
The feisty Harlan has been replaced by a shell of man finding it safer to bury the horror. To talk about it would be reliving it. His parents and friends do what they can to try to reach him but he has retracted into a world none of them can comprehend.
The ending is bittersweet with a twist of revenge and shred of hope.