'The Book of Harlan': Following a black musician caught up in WWII

'The Book
'The Book of Harlan' by Bernice McFadden
Courtesy of Akashic Books

"The Book of Harlan" is the first book in our "Take It to the Lake" summer fiction series. Find the full list of summer author interviews on The Thread.

A few years ago, Bernice McFadden stumbled across a little-known piece of history: the story of African-Americans imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II.

Many were artists or musicians who had left the U.S. for France or Germany, only to be swept up in the conflict. European-born blacks were also imprisoned by the Nazis.

Their experiences stayed with McFadden, and inspired her new novel, "The Book of Harlan."

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The novel follows Harlan Elliot, a Georgia-born musician who leaves the south for Harlem, flourishing in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. His music takes him to Montmartre, Paris, where his ambitions collide with history when the Germans occupy the city.

While the story of Harlan is fictional, the face on the book cover is not: It's a photograph of McFadden's grandfather, who abandoned his young family when McFadden's father was a child. She'd never even seen what he looked like until she was sorting through her grandmother's papers. Then a photo fell out of a book — or half a photo. The portrait had been ripped in half, either by time or by angry hands. It has been pieced back together for the cover.

McFadden incorporated much of her family's history into the novel, basing Harlan on her grandfather. She also incorporated her grandmother's recollections of life in Harlem, which she pulled from letters and photos after her death.

"She was a very private person and she carried a lot of secrets to her grave," McFadden told MPR News host Kerri Miller. "Or at least she thought she did — until I got a hold of these photos."

For the full interview with Bernice McFadden on "The Book of Harlan," use the audio player above.

Further reading

For more books that explore the black experience during World War II, check out Firpo W. Carr's "Germany's Black Holocaust, 1890 - 1945," "Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under the Nazi Occupation" by Charles Glass and "Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars" by William A. Shack.