“The Book of Harlan” is Bernice L. McFadden’s 10th novel, and it is simply miraculous. Each character in her large cast is vivid, and every turn of event is intriguing. Leaping from Harlem to the Holocaust and back again, it’s also a history lesson with a heart and lots of soul.
The story takes off in the 1930s, the heyday of Harlem. Jazz giants like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith can be found playing and singing at clubs packed night after night. When Emma Robinson, a piano teacher, and her husband, Sam, inherit some money, they take their young son, Harlan, with them from Macon, Ga., to New York to live with successful musician friends in a fancy townhouse. A “Welcome to Harlem” party is thrown for them, “attended by the black glitterati.” Emma cannot believe she’s meeting Jelly Roll Morton and blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver and “talking bread pudding recipes with blues singer Alberta Hunter.”
Harlan finds Harlem “as chaotic and thrilling as the three-ringed circus that came through Macon each spring,” but he soon adjusts. And when he hits high school, he discovers his passion in music. “I’m done with school, gonna pursue guitar-picking full time!” he announces. His father is firmly against the idea, but his mother decides, “What he’s good at is playing the guitar. So let him do that.”
Do that he does, and while playing in clubs on the road as a teenager, Harlan also discovers the dizzying world of booze and babes — along with plenty of racism in the South. “This ain’t Harlem,” a friend warns him. “You can’t walk through the front door of any establishment you please, sit down, eat and drink your gut full. . . . This here is Jim Crow territory.”
Despite his musical prowess, a bad attitude and worsening habits get Harlan fired from the band. Back home, he meets a trumpeter named Lizard, and the two of them form the Harlem World Band along with a singer and pianist. Invited to play in Paris, the four sail off, and Harlan discovers a city he loves. “Not once had he been denied entry into a restaurant or hotel,” Harlan thinks. “There had been none of that ugliness in Paris.”
But war is looming, and soon musicians “scatter like ants,” and clubs close. On May 10, 1940, the Germans invade, and although the band quickly books passage home, Lizard and Harlan are nabbed by the Nazis.
The horrors of Buchenwald lie ahead, where the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” Ilse Koch, reigns and where the prisoners are treated as “the most reviled creatures on the earth.”
To write compellingly about the Holocaust requires moral vision and exhaustive research. Clearly, McFadden possesses that insight and is committed to recreating this atrocity in all its complexity. As her saga becomes ever more spellbinding, so does the reader’s astonishment at the magic she creates.
This is a story about the triumph of the human spirit over bigotry, intolerance and cruelty, and at the center of “The Book of Harlan” is the restorative force that is music.
Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist, writer, video blogger and the music director of Clarion Concerts in Columbia County, N.Y.
By Bernice L. McFadden
Akashic. 349 pp. $29.95