The Book of Harlan: A Review

Author: Bernice McFadden

Print Length: 354 pages (Kindle); 400 pages (hardcover)

Publisher: Akashic Books; Reprint edition (April 11, 2016)

Publication Date: April 11, 2016

the book of harlanbernice 1

“The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” –Frederick Douglass (printed in The Book of Harlan, page 281, Kindle)

There are rare literary moments when a reader is given a gift so magnificent that it defies adequate definition; when Seshat embraces and guides the writer’s pen and thoughts,  leading them through overgrown,  encumbered historical paths toward a promised land — a place that is quietly pure, emotionally significant, and afforded to few. Fortunate for us, Bernice McFadden has ambled along that path, bathed in the elusive light of wisdom and promise and has stamped down the thorny and entangled frondescence so that the beauty at the end of that path may be embraced. Her hands and mind have indeed been kissed by Seshat.

In The Book of Harlan, Ms. McFadden reveals the holy grail of conflict: a plethora of social, emotional, political, racial, and religious issues, marching into the controversial realm of each without apology. Readers are afforded the fortunate opportunity to commune with a literary presence (Ms. McFadden) endowed with an indescribably beautiful vision.

The myriad of images in The Book of Harlan are vivid, and Ms. McFadden’s love of subtle details burst like a floral symphony after a warm spring rain. The colors of each line, page, and chapter are explosively bright, and in her essential and historical brilliance, Ms. McFadden (previously I stated that she is in the class of Walker, Morrison,  Angelou, and I must add Kincaid), presents the novel with the eye of a gifted cinematographer. The reader is, as a result, graciously endowed with an indescribable, and lasting emotional connection.

At the start of the book, the reader meets Emma Robinson and the Robinson family. Quickly it becomes obvious that the family has some capital means and their confident, almost arrogant, air belies their acknowledgment of their good fortune:

“The Robinson family traveled the city in a shiny black buggy, pulled by not one horse but two horses.” (page 3- Kindle)

Their residence is a house reminiscent of the surreal, quaint country dwellings often planted on several country acres where the loudest sound one hears is the evening’s wind. McFadden states that they [the Robinsons] lived among the Black elite of Macon; “the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and ministers, and not a maid or ditch digger among them.” (pg. 3)

Emma is the youngest and the only girl.  Stereotypic as a teenaged character, she seems to hunger for an existence of greater adventure. This ‘hunger’ she expresses in silent vividness by her admiration of  Lucille, her friend and a jazz / blues singer who is offered a “glamorous” life on the road. Emma’s strict upbringing and denial of these raucous endeavors, causes her to long for it more. Emma meets and confirms a mutual attraction with Sam Elliot, a good-looking, quiet and easy-going carpenter from Kentucky, and her life heads in a different and completely unpredictable direction. Sam is smitten and spends every possible moment in pursuit of Emma. His intentions are honest. His love for Emma is real. But, as would be expected, her family is distrusting.

McFadden takes the story along the path of secretive affection and through the chambers of lost virginity. The Robinson family’s resolve is tested by Emma’s unplanned pregnancy, quick marriage, and decision to move (the first of many) from Macon to DC  after the birth of she and Sam’s child. It is after the birth of Harlan that the novel truly becomes The Book of Harlan.

The short chapters are like staccato movements; breath, awakening, flow, ebb, pure, constant, short and intentional.  Ms. McFadden provides intensity, conflict, resolution, and intrigue; most evidently beginning with the horrific, fiery suicide of Darlene, the sister of Harlan’s best friend. Beautifully, Ms. McFadden uses Darlene (who is characteristically flat) as a powerfully appropriate apparition for the events in Harlan’s life (my thoughts). In my opinion, she played a vital role in the tribulations of Harlan’s life, including throughout his adulthood.

Harlan opts to pursue music and drops out of high school. He joins and performs (poorly) with Lucille’s band and is introduced to marijuana, under the promise from fellow musicians that it will make him play better. And it does…. tremendously. This sort of internal conflict from external influences is Ms. McFadden’s sweet spot; the place where her glow begins to shine even brighter.

Midway through the novel, Harlan befriends Lizard, a Jewish musician whose Blackish demeanor and period-influenced style grants him the ability to evade inquiries about his ethnicity. Their bond is quick, affectionate, and brotherly, and together they form a band.  After finding and flexing their chops in the US, they are offered an opportunity to perform in Paris. War was declared at the time of their travel, and the climate of the book changes, becoming, at that very moment, far greater than the sum of its parts;  reflecting tension and chaos, joy and pain, and a level of sorrow so massive that it remains, even in present reality, immeasurable. We feel, deeply, the details of this tension.  Ms. McFadden ensures that we do; pummels us with a constant barrage of elation and fear; extracting the elements of each until there is nothing recognizable left, like a conductor building a crescendo from the quiet of piano. In the hush of night, after otherwise tense but ordinary affairs, Harlan and Lizard are accosted, bludgeoned,  and abducted by Nazi soldiers. The novel, already very alive, transforms further, raising the reader’s blood pressure and leaving them desperately gasping for air and clutching at the rocketing pain in their chest.

Harlan’s return to America after several years of unnerving events in Europe presents its own symphony of challenges. The many events experienced by Lizard and Harlan after their abduction, introducing to some and confirming for others the historically excluded conflict that occurred between Nazi soldiers and people of African descent, exceeds my ability to give it the justice it greatly deserves. Ms. McFadden packs the novel with so much of her magic that no review or critique could ever effectively capture its depth. With each word and turn of the page the intensity builds, and the transition and tone of the story, from this point to the very end, epitomizes literary exactness. And it is here that I feel more than compelled to discontinue my summary.There are no short cuts. Yes, this is a must read type of novel.

This review/commentary has, for reasons I cannot explain, been the most challenging I have attempted. Perhaps it was the details within the book or my personal admiration for Ms. McFadden’s work that made commenting difficult. Perhaps I made the greatest faux pas, by reading the reviews of others and commenting on their comments.

Maybe it was because of this….

I have never written a review by summarization or through extracting too many details from the story, but for reasons unknown I was entranced by a deep need to do so with this book. Perhaps, to me, Harlan is an exceptionally familiar character,  reminding me subtly of my grandfather, or uncle, or a distant cousin, or the man down the street. Perhaps I see Harlan within myself; searching, finding, losing, and reborn. Maybe Harlan is many, or perhaps he embodies such layers of complexity that he is no one at all.Whoever he is to you is correct. His facets are many. Bernice McFadden and Seshat made him that way. After reading The (AMAZING) Book of Harlan, I am certain, with absolutely no doubt, that you will agree.




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