The Book of Harlan

Written by Bernice L. McFadden
Review by Susan McDuffie

In 1917, Harlan Elliot is born in Macon, Georgia, the grandson of a revered minister whose daughter and carpenter husband leave their son to be raised by his God-fearing grandparents. But Harlan’s life journey takes him far from Macon. In the midst of the lushness and vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance, Harlan learns to love music and his guitar, as well as women and the finer things in life. Eventually, his band crosses the Atlantic to Paris in the days before the Nazi invasion, and Harlan’s story leads him to darker places. This novel sweeps us with Harlan from 1917 to the early 1970s as world and national events play out and carry him in their wake.

The Book of Harlan is an incredible read. Bernice McFadden knew very little of her paternal grandfather’s life, but from a few scant facts she 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. Many people on my Christmas list will be getting a copy! Highly recommended.