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The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden


During World War II, two African American musicians are captured by the Nazis in Paris and imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

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.


I had decided not to get anymore ARCs this year( I have gotten 8 more since then). However, I saw this book on NetGalley and based on the description; I knew that it’s a book that I had to read. The first chapter  confirmed that I had made the right decision.The Book of Harlan  by Bernice L. McFadden is a book that will stay with me for a very long time. It’s special and I am very glad that I got a chance to read it.

The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. Mcfadden begins with the story of Harlan’s parents. The two met in Macon, Georgia in 1917. I really liked the story of their courtship especially about how Sam started going to church just to see Emma who was the minister’s daughter. It was cute and funny and the author described the scenes so vividly that I could imagine these meetings. The courtship led to one of the most beautiful marriages that I have ever read about. It also led to the birth of Harlan.

The character development in the book is great. I felt like I got to know each character very well. The protagonist, Harlan, is based on the author’s grandfather. Harlan is portrayed as a complex character. I liked the guy though it bothered me how he used to treat women especially Gwen. He used women for his selfish needs and discarded them without a second thought. However,Harlan was also a man who would get up at 2:00am in the morning to attend to a friend in trouble. There were many sides to Harlan, some were good were others were not so good.  I liked all the other characters in the book. The other took time to develop them really well even if they were supporting characters. They each had a story. However, I wasn’t really happy about how the character of Gwen was developed. We got to know her very well from birth but her story felt like it was cut short prematurely. I wanted to know what happened to her.


The book mentions the Blues making reference to iconic artists such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. I liked the part that music played in this narrative and how it connected the different characters despite their differences. As readers, we also get to see how music transformed Harlan and a few other artists. Bernice wrote about music in a way that made me feel like I was missing out by  not listening to the Blues from that era.

One of the main conflicts in the book is about race. The author shares stories of what it was like being an African American at that time. It is through this book that I learned about Jim Crow. The way the characters view racism was also interesting. Some of them had accepted it as a way of life. For instance; a group of artists on the road saw a motel with a vacancy sign but they past it explaining to one of the youngest artists that the sign didn’t refer to them but rather to the white folks. There are others who resisted it  through protests. Leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X were also referred to in the book. Surprisingly, Nelson Mandela also came up. This was interesting to me because I didn’t know that there was outside support to end apartheid. The characters refer to protests held after Mandela’s imprisonment. The book has a mixture if facts and fiction so I haven’t been able to confirm this bit but I am definitely interested in the subject.Other conflicts include personal, religious, political and social.

As mentioned in the blurb, Harlan and his friend, Lizard ended up in the Buchenwald concentration camp. The conditions at the camp were deplorable and really hard to read about. This part of the book reminded me of an old movie that I watched years back, Escape from Sobibor(a Nazi extermination camp). The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden brings out a different perspective about the camps by  not only focusing on the Jewish prisoners but also the others. The other victims include black prisoners, gay prisoners of all races, Jehovah Witnesses and even religious prisoners. She tells their stories through different characters. For instance, there is a story of a gay man in the camp. Bernice masterfully introduces new characters to develop the narrative without shifting focus from the main story line. However, I found myself sympathizing with all the prisoners especially those whose stories were shared. The author explains at the end of the book that she decided to do this because ‘the others’ are usually left out of most history accounts. The Witch of Buchenwald, Ilse Koch is also mentioned in this book but as the Bitch of Buchenwald. Her fate is twisted from what is reported in the history books. I liked this ending better though.

This book not only gave accounts of life in the camp but also life after the camp. We get to see Harlan after the camp, struggling to get back to his life with the support of his parents. Themes of depression and PTSD come up through these sections.

The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden is one of the most moving books that I have read this year. I liked the fact that it covered so many different themes over the span of a number of decades. The narration had an easy flow to it with short chapters and enough dialogue that made it sound conversational. It felt like I was there with Bernice listening to her narrate the story. The characters are very well described through language; physical attributes and even mannerism that made each one of them stand out. I loved this book. It’s a magnificent work of literature and I am glad that Bernice decided to tell her story in this way. The book is based on historical events and so I found it to be both informative and entertaining. I learned so many new things like about Buchenwald Concentration Camp which I didn’t know about before reading this book. McFadden’s writing is amazing and her book has given life to some of the most memorable characters that I have ever encountered. This is a literary gem that I highly recommend to everyone. It’s the only book that I can remember reading and not wanting it to end.  Bernice McFadden is undoubtedly a very skillful storyteller. I can’t wait to read her other books.

About the Author


Bernice L. McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. She is a three-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Book of Harlan is her latest novel.

Author’s Note about the book

The Book of Harlan was inspired by the life of my paternal grandfather; Harold Isaac McFadden (pictured on the cover)I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.

In many ways, this book is the culmination of twenty years of family history research. A few weeks after I sent the manuscript to my publisher, I went down to a little town in Burke County, Georgia to meet (for the first time) my third cousins – direct descendants of my GGGrandmother, Louisa White Robinson. –Bernice McFadden


21 comments on “The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

  1. Annie
    December 5, 2016

    Amazing review, I loved what you said about courtship, it seems so cute! The minister’s daughter… that’s a cliche I can’t help but love haha However, stories about concentration camps are so hard to read… 😦 But this seems so emotional and I’m glad you loved it so much ❤

    • Diana
      December 6, 2016

      I have never read any other story about the concentration camps though I have been meaning to read Diary of a Young Girl but I agree, it was hard to read about what people went through there. The courtship was hilarious, that guy had moves lol. He would go one Sunday and say hi and then ignore her the next Sunday acting all mysterious, he had a serious game plan 🙂

      Thank you ❤

      • Annie
        December 6, 2016

        Hahaha That is amazing! I’ll save this one!

  2. Lilyn G. (Sci-Fi & Scary)
    December 5, 2016

    This sounds interesting. I never really thought about African Americans in concentration camps. Guess I assumed it was just white Jews. Stupid of me. Not my type of book but it does look interesting and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Diana
      December 6, 2016

      I also thought the same thing until I read this book then did a little research about it. This is what I found; while Black people in Nazi Germany were never subject to mass extermination as in the cases of Poles, Jews, Slavs and Romani, they were still considered by the Nazis to be an inferior race and, along with Romani people, were subject to the Nuremberg Laws under a supplementary decree.

      Thank you 

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife
    December 5, 2016

    I have been curious about this one but I’ve held off because I thought it might be too heavy. It does sound sad but also very intriguing. Nice review!

    • Diana
      December 6, 2016

      Thank you. Yes, it does have some really heavy themes but its also so well written. I also liked the fact that the author mixed historical facts, family memories and fiction:-)

  4. doddyaboutbooks
    December 6, 2016

    Great review Diana, another one for my TBR. I thought you might find this article interesting – it talks about Australia’s role in getting other countries to help put pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-06/top-figures-recall-australia's-role-in-ending-apartheid/4750262

    • Diana
      December 8, 2016

      I replied to this comment, not sure what happened 😦

      Thank you so much for the link. I tried researching on the issue but I was focusing on America’s role and wasn’t successful in getting any news about it. I am glad to see what Australia did especially with the sanctions. Thanks for sharing.

      I hope that you will like the book as much as I did:-)

      • Sue - doddyaboutbooks
        December 8, 2016

        🙂 I love my country even though I don’t always agree with the politicians running the place. I do love the slightly naive strategy that seems to be taken with African countries in particular, where if the government isn’t behaving in a way we agree with, one of the first things we do is disallow their cricket team from visiting our shores. Because that will teach them. (?!?)

        • Diana
          December 8, 2016

          lol, the way you put it makes it sound funny. Anyway, it may not seem much but I think the strategy worked in showing that Australia did not support apartheid. The SA teams back them were all white. Not letting the team cover over is one way of showing intolerance to the racism. I guess it made an even bigger impact because they probably thought the West would support them and share their ideologies. The financial sanctions also had a huge impact especially because Australia was able to get other countries to join in.

          Sometimes it seems like African countries are usually ignored. Remember what happened with the Rwandan genocide, 100 days and almost 1million people and those who could help actually withdrew help and only got their citizens out. Africa has many conflicts so I guess most times people just look away. There was debate during the Paris attacks where the world including Africa stood with France. Even Facebook did something to show support. At the same time, Beirut had an attack and which was kinda ignored. Here is one article about it http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/world/middleeast/beirut-lebanon-attacks-paris.html?_r=0 . I don’t know how to explain but its nice to know that someone tried to do something for SA:-)

          • Sue - doddyaboutbooks
            December 8, 2016

            I agree that Africa is largely ignored by the media. The western media prefers to fetishise places like Paris – it unfortunately appeals to the white racist common denominator. A number of awful attacks I’ve read about in Africa have been perpetrated by Christian terrorists. The western media will never pick these stories up and give them the attention they deserve because it will demand audience to ask questions about religion and race that they don’t want to think about. 😦

  5. cleopatralovesbooks
    December 6, 2016

    Wow, it just shows that you should never ban yourself from more books! I do like the sound of this as not only am I interested on the effect the war had on an entire generation but that this takes a little known part of the concentration camps and the people sent there. It sounds absolutely fascinating!

    • Diana
      December 8, 2016

      I have stopped the ban now because I keep finding new interesting books. There is no way to control the TBR it seems:-) Let me know if you decide to read this one.

  6. Fantastic review Diana! This isn’t one I’d ordinarily read, but it sounds amazing! Every once in a while I like to break out of my bookish comfort zone, and I think after reading your review I’d like to try this.💁🏻

  7. Grab the Lapels
    December 8, 2016

    I’m always surprises when stories about the Holocaust DON’T include all the people who weren’t Jewish. There were a lot. One group I didn’t know a great deal about were the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A student of mine wrote a fascinating paper about the subject and why this group was included.

    • Diana
      December 11, 2016

      I haven’t read many books about the Holocaust but you are right,the ones that I read were about the Jewish victims.This boom opened my eyes.I also saw the mention of Jehova witnesses in the book but it never explained why them.I’ll try and get more info on that Your student’s paper sounds great.Was it based on research or experience,perhaps from family?

      • Grab the Lapels
        December 11, 2016

        I believe the student was a Jehovah’s Witness herself. If I remember correctly, JH don’t vote, believe in or support any wars, bow to any flags/salutes, etc. Basically, they were not targeted for religion or race and could have made things “easier” on themselves, but due to their strong religious convictions and firm unwillingness to bend on those convictions, they were persecuted too. I admire this group for never wavering in the face of terror.

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