Friday, May 20, 2016

The Book of Harlan

The Book of HarlanThe Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Can we say six stars? This is Bernice L. McFadden's best book ever! Her prose is stunning, gliding over an epic of horrific proportions.

We meet Harlan's parents Sam Elliot, and Emma Robinson before he was conceived, while Emma was too innocent to protect herself. But they did the best they could, leaving Harlan with his doting grandmother while the young couple goes off seeking their fortune from Macon to Louisville to Michigan, returning home to Macon when Emma's father Tenant Robinson dies. When Tenant's estate is settled, Emma and Sam move on to Harlem where Emma's best friend Lucille a famous blues singer, has settled in a large home, with rooms to spare.

McFadden weaves her story around historical facts of life in Harlem with famous singers and musicians of the 1920's. When Emma and Sam go back to get Harlan to join them in Harlem, he is at first defiant, but goes with his parents to New York where he discovers a life he never imagined. When Harlan learns to play the guitar, Lucille invites him to go on the road with her. But Harlan, who never has any personal discipline was often late, or drunk, until Lucille has to fire him and send him home.

Harlan lacked discipline, but he did love the music enough to form a jazz band. He found his partner in music in one Leo "Lizard" Rubenstein, who could play trumpet like Satchmo. Harlan called him his "brother from another mother." The band was invited to play in L'Escadrille in Montmarte in Paris. And so they went. Harlan, still lacking discipline, had a wild partying time in Paris, not aware of the Nazi invasion of France. (No spoilers here, it's in the book-blurb.)

McFadden continues the heartbreaking part of the story, leaving me in tears. The story ends in the 1960's, the Viet Nam War, "riots" in the cities, Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), "free love." And a wonderful denouement.

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