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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Book of Harlan: Ambivalence = Depth

I thought I knew what I'd be getting with The Book of Harlan  by Bernice L. McFadden, and in some ways I was right, but in others I was wrong.  Yes, this is a novel about an African American musician who is sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis.  It's also about a number of other significant issues.   When a book attempts to address so much, can it be successful?  My feeling is that some aspects of  The Book of Harlan were more successful than others.

The equation in the title of my review shows the standard that I'm using to determine what I thought was really good about this book, and what I thought could be improved.


The portrayal of Harlan was the best thing about this book. He was the character who had the most depth.   I didn't always find him sympathetic, but he did feel like a genuine human being.   At one point I thought that Harlan did the unforgivable, but I was reconciled to the character because it seemed to me that he never forgave himself.   Doing the unforgivable ended up being something he had to live with.  McFadden movingly depicts how Harlan deals with this reality. She doesn't clobber us over the head with explicit angst in which he tells us directly how he feels.   Instead she shows us how Harlan was impacted through his actions.  His reticence was powerfully expressive.

This is a historical novel that covers a long period of time.   Since this is also a relatively short book, McFadden briefly mentions some names and events which leads readers inclined to do research to discover more about them.  I usually find opportunities for research really wonderful.  Yet sometimes McFadden's references weren't as meaningful as they could have been.

 For example, being employed in an all-African American dance company might have been financially beneficial for a dancer character, but was it psychologically beneficial?  She performed in African American dance shows for the World's Fair produced by Mike Todd.  I ran searches about the all-African American Mikado, The Hot Mikado, which Mike Todd also produced.  I learned that it has been analyzed in terms of racist representation.  In fact, you can find the poster for The Hot Mikado at The Jim Crow Museum  which is a collection of materials that display racist images.  So the African American character involved might have been conflicted about participating in a production that was probably rife with humiliating stereotypes.  I think that portraying that ambivalence would have made for a more complex characterization. The entire sub-plot involving her seemed under-developed.  I would call it a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, I was delighted to discover Eugene Bullard, the owner of the Paris club where Harlan performed.  He was a real historical personage with a fascinating life.   Bullard was the first African American military pilot.  To find out more see the article devoted to him on  Wikipedia.  I would very much like to read the biography Eugene Bullard:  Black Expatriate in Jazz Age Paris, and I have located it in a local library system.

Because I do research about historical personages mentioned in novels, I wondered a great deal about the incident at the end of the book.   I think that Harlan was definitely suffering from PTSD which is an understandable consequence of his experiences.  He wasn't entirely sane.  Bernice McFadden used indirect references and implications, so we can imagine what Harlan was thinking and feeling at the time. I thought that was very well-handled.  It provided a moving conclusion to The Book of Harlan

I still wanted to see more depth in characters other than Harlan--particularly the female characters.   It was a good book.  I learned about people and events in African American history that I hadn't heard about previously, and even an eye opening story about the well known musician, Louis Armstrong that led me to conduct hours of research.   Yet there were missing aspects.  Maybe The Book of Harlan should have been much longer.





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