The Book of Harlan

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Born in Georgia in 1917, black jazz and blues musician Harlan moves north, first to Kansas City and then to Harlem. With best friend Lizard, a Jewish trumpet player, he forms a band that, in the late 1930s, joins other black musicians in the Harlem of Paris, Montemarte. But when Paris is occupied by the Nazis, Harlan and Lizard are transported to Buchenwald.

Events in Buchenwald are dramatised in stark, economical detail. In one particularly gruelling scene, Isle Koch, wife of the commander of Buchenwald, amuses herself by brutally abusing captives.

McFadden’s account of the little-told story of black victims of the Nazis includes mention of US black singer Valaida Snow, snatched by Nazis and incarcerated in a concentration camp. The US press claimed she’d been imprisoned for dope offences; only the black press told the truth.

Politically, socialists will note the absence of instances of black and white unity in struggle. Other than Jews, with whom black people share the experience of racist abuses, white people are almost portrayed as uniformly racist.

While McFadden’s account of racism is historically accurate and badly needs telling, it’s a pity the potential of collective struggle is missing. Resolution comes in the form of an act of individual revenge. Music, a theme from the outset, is shown to be a creative, restorative force that can unite people.

That said, McFadden succeeds in embodying a great deal of research into black 20th century history in a compelling account of lived experience; fleshing out bald facts in a tight, engaging style. Short chapters full of incident have just enough descriptive detail to give colour and substance to characters and setting. And I’ll remember McFadden’s quote from Dorothy West: “There is no life that does not contribute to history.”