The Book of Harlan opens with the courtship of Harlan’s parents and his 1917 birth in Macon, Georgia. After his prominent minister grandfather dies, Harlan and his parents move to Harlem, where he becomes a musician.
The Book of Harlan opens with the courtship of Harlan’s parents and his 1917 birth in Macon, Georgia. After his prominent minister grandfather dies, Harlan and his parents move to Harlem, where he becomes a musician. Soon, Harlan and his best friend, trumpeter Lizard Robbins, are lured across the Atlantic Ocean to perform at a popular cabaret in the Parisian enclave of Montmartre–affectionately referred to as “The Harlem of Paris” by black American musicians.
When the City of Light falls under Nazi occupation, Harlan and Lizard are thrown into Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp in Weimar, Germany. The experience irreparably changes the course of Harlan’s life. Based on exhaustive research and told in McFadden’s mesmeric prose, The Book of Harlan skillfully blends the stories of McFadden’s familial ancestors with those of real and imagined characters.
Critical Praise for The Book of Harlan
“Simply miraculous…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.”
“McFadden packs a powerful punch with tight prose and short chapters that bear witness to key events in early twentieth-century history: both World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Great Migration. Partly set in the Jim Crow South, the novel succeeds in showing the prevalence of racism all across the country–whether implemented through institutionalized mechanisms or otherwise. Playing with themes of divine justice and the suffering of the righteous, McFadden presents a remarkably crisp portrait of one average man’s extraordinary bravery in the face of pure evil.”
—Booklist, Starred review
“Until fate throws him squarely in the path of evil, Harlan Elliott leads a pretty routine existence as a young black man coming of age in 1920s Jazz Age Harlem. But when Harlan and his close friend are invited to perform in Paris, they get sucked into the maelstrom of horrific world events.”
—Booklist, Editors’ Choice list of Adult Books for Young Readers
“The Book of Harlan is an incredible read. Bernice McFadden…has created an amazing novel that speaks to lesser known aspects of the African-American experience and illuminates the human heart and spirit. Her spare prose is rich in details that convey deep emotions and draw the reader in. This fictional narrative of Harlan Elliot’s life is firmly grounded amidst real people and places–prime historical fiction, and the best book I have read this year.”
—Historical Novels Review, Editors’ Choice
“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.”
“During WWII, two African-American musicians are captured by the Nazis in Paris and imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp, in the latest from the author of Sugar and Loving Donovan.”
—Publishers Weekly, Spring 2016 Announcements
“Sought-after books included Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, about two African American musicians imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp, so eye-opening that people came up hours before and days after the one-time giveaway begging for copies.”
—Library Journal, ALA Buzzed Books
“McFadden’s impressive achievement offers us a window into the often very difficult lives of African Americans from the Jim Crow era up to the present–and, unexpectedly, in wartime Germany. Highly recommended for showing us that however badly black citizens have historically been treated, black lives matter.”
—Library Journal (XPress Reviews)
“McFadden shows how enduring the human spirit is, carving out pockets of happiness and fulfillment even in the most oppressive corners of a racist, pre-Civil Rights-era United States and fascist Europe…This is not, however, a doom-and-gloom book. McFadden also fleshes out Harlem in its golden age as a safe pocket for black America to thrive, and the opulence, creativity and joy she conjures is intoxicating…In this work of historical fiction, many more real characters make appearances…McFadden weaves their lives together with ancestors from her family to create something wholly elegant and hypnotic, putting a new face on World War II.”
“McFadden’s writing breaks the heart–and then heals it again. The perspective of a black man in a concentration camp is unique and harrowing and this is a riveting, worthwhile read.”
“Another one of Bernice L. McFadden’s masterpieces…McFadden took me on a melodious literary journey through time and place–complex, real, beautifully raw, and necessary…McFadden’s prose lingers, giving me courage to stay committed to telling authentic stories that, while revealing of unspeakable truths, serve to unite us all.”
–The Millions, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s A Year in Reading
“I’ve finally discovered a writer I should’ve been reading for years!…McFadden has a gift for placing her characters into the vivid history swirling around them, but keeping their emotional experience front and center in the story. There’s a Zora Neale Hurston sensibility to the way she does that.”
—MPR News, Kerri Miller’s Must-Read