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The Book of Harlan


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

$18.95 $14.21

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What people are saying…

Bernice L. McFadden has been named the Go On Girl! Book Club’s 2018 Author of the Year!

WINNER of the 2017 American Book Award!

WINNER of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work (Fiction)!

2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Nominee (Fiction)!

A Washington Post Notable Book of 2016

Selected as a Go on Girl! Book Club pick for April 2018

“McFadden uses the experiences of her own ancestors as loose inspiration for the life of Harlan, whom she portrays from his childhood in Harlem through imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and his struggles afterward to put his life back together.”
Library Journal, included in a collection development section dedicated to 20th century historical fiction

“Simply miraculous . . . As her saga becomes ever more spellbinding, so does the reader’s astonishment at the magic she creates. This is a story about the triumph of the human spirit over bigotry, intolerance and cruelty, and at the center of The Book of Harlan is the restorative force that is music.”
Washington Post

“McFadden packs a powerful punch with tight prose and short chapters that bear witness to key events in early twentieth-century history: both World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Great Migration. Partly set in the Jim Crow South, the novel succeeds in showing the prevalence of racism all across the country—whether implemented through institutionalized mechanisms or otherwise. Playing with themes of divine justice and the suffering of the righteous, McFadden presents a remarkably crisp portrait of one average man’s extraordinary bravery in the face of pure evil.”
Booklist, Starred review

“Bernice L. McFadden took me on a melodious literary journey through time and place in her masterpiece, The Book of Harlan. It’s complex, real, and raw . . . McFadden intricately and purposefully weaves history as a backdrop in her fiction. The Book of Harlan brilliantly explores questions about agency, purpose, freedom, and survival.”
Literary Hub, one of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s 26 Books From the Last Decade that More People Should Read

“Until fate throws him squarely in the path of evil, Harlan Elliott leads a pretty routine existence as a young black man coming of age in 1920s Jazz Age Harlem. But when Harlan and his close friend are invited to perform in Paris, they get sucked into the maelstrom of horrific world events.”
Booklist, Editors’ Choice list of Adult Books for Young Readers

The Book of Harlan is an incredible read. Bernice McFadden . . . 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.”
Historical Novels Review, Editors’ Choice

“Through this character portrait of Harlan, McFadden has constructed a vivid, compelling narrative that makes historical fiction an accessible, literary window into the African-American past and some of the contemporary dilemmas of the present.”
Publishers Weekly

“McFadden’s thorough research and passion for her subject creates a brilliant novel.”
Oak Ridger, selected in the Reader’s Guide roundup

“During WWII, two African-American musicians are captured by the Nazis in Paris and imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp, in the latest from the author of Sugar and Loving Donovan.”
Publishers Weekly, Spring 2016 Announcements

“Sought-after books included Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, about two African American musicians imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp, so eye-opening that people came up hours before and days after the one-time giveaway begging for copies.”
Library Journal, ALA Buzzed Books

“McFadden’s impressive achievement offers us a window into the often very difficult lives of African Americans from the Jim Crow era up to the present—and, unexpectedly, in wartime Germany. Highly recommended for showing us that however badly black citizens have historically been treated, black lives matter.”
Library Journal (XPress Reviews)

“McFadden shows how enduring the human spirit is, carving out pockets of happiness and fulfillment even in the most oppressive corners of a racist, pre-Civil Rights-era United States and fascist Europe . . . This is not, however, a doom-and-gloom book. McFadden also fleshes out Harlem in its golden age as a safe pocket for black America to thrive, and the opulence, creativity and joy she conjures is intoxicating . . . In this work of historical fiction, many more real characters make appearances . . . McFadden weaves their lives together with ancestors from her family to create something wholly elegant and hypnotic, putting a new face on World War II.”
Eugene Weekly

“McFadden’s writing breaks the heart—and then heals it again. The perspective of a black man in a concentration camp is unique and harrowing and this is a riveting, worthwhile read.”
Toronto Star

“Another one of Bernice L. McFadden’s masterpieces . . . McFadden took me on a melodious literary journey through time and place — complex, real, beautifully raw, and necessary . . . McFadden’s prose lingers, giving me courage to stay committed to telling authentic stories that, while revealing of unspeakable truths, serve to unite us all.”
The Millions, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s A Year in Reading

“I’ve finally discovered a writer I should’ve been reading for years! . . . McFadden has a gift for placing her characters into the vivid history swirling around them, but keeping their emotional experience front and center in the story. There’s a Zora Neale Hurston sensibility to the way she does that.”
—MPR News, Kerri Miller’s Must-Read

“The consensus from chapters across the nation was that this book was something special—an exceptional work replete with all the elements that elicited our praise. It was a page-turner that kept our attention from cover to cover. It introduced us to characters who were as real and relatable as our own family members. It contained enough drama, plot twists, foreshadowing, and symbolism to challenge readers and to intellectually engage them with the story. And, lastly, the story was so beautifully interlaced with Black history and Black historical figures that it anchored us in familiar territory. It was the kind of story in which the reader had to connect the dots and Ms. McFadden provided us with dots aplenty . . . The Book of Harlan raised the bar on historical fiction and set a new benchmark for originality and story-telling.”
—Go on Girl! Book Club

“A moving epic that follows the life of one man, Harlan Elliott, The Book of Harlan weaves real-life characters from McFadden’s own life into a fictionalized story about the treatment of black people during the Holocaust.”
Deep South Magazine

“From Macon, Georgia, to Harlem, and from the City of Lights to Weimar, Germany, Bernice L. McFadden’s latest novel follows Harlan and his friend Lizard, two black musicians who are captured by the Nazis during WWII and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Book of Harlan blends family history and world history, fact and fiction, to revisit a haunting chapter from the past.”
Hello Beautiful, #BlackWomenRead: 17 Books by Black Women You Need In Your Life This Spring

“Hidden history comes alive in this novel about an African American man from Georgia who became a musician in Harlem, played in Paris, lived through the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and spent his final years in the turmoil of the 1960s.”
World Wide Work

“Spanning six decades, readers are taken on a journey from the upper class home of an upstanding preacher to the outskirts of the Harlem Renaissance, crossing the ocean to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and winding its way back to black pride and a humble Brooklyn dwelling. Like I said, McFadden does a lot. Fortunately for readers, she does it well.”
Read in Colour

“McFadden has weaved a tale of undying love and affection that will not only pull at your heartstrings but will also enlighten and inform.”

“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.”
Monlatable Book Reviews

“Journey into the extraordinary story of a man who was born December 24, 1917—and lived a vivid life . . . Excellent . . . History and music enthusiasts will adore this book.”
Coffee Breaks and Bookmarks

“This book is exceptional. It is a great read well worth your time.”
Book Referees

“McFadden is a skillful, powerful writer . . . She crafts her passages with the minimalist magic of a Miles Davis trumpet solo . . . A true blues beauty of a novel.”
Pacific Rim Review of Books

Praise for Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden:

“McFadden has created a magical, fantastic novel . . . This is a startling, beautifully written piece of work.”
—Dennis Lehane, author of World Gone By

“McFadden works a kind of miracle—not only do her characters retain their appealing humanity; their story eclipses the bonds of history to offer continuous surprises . . . Beautiful and evocative.”
—Jesmyn Ward, New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“Read it aloud. Hire a chorus to chant it to you and anyone else interested in hearing about civil rights and uncivil desires.”
—Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered (NPR)


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 eventually becomes a professional musician. When Harlan and his best friend, trumpeter Lizard Robbins, are invited to perform at a popular cabaret in the Parisian enclave of Montmartre—affectionately referred to as “The Harlem of Paris” by black American musicians—Harlan jumps at the opportunity, convincing Lizard to join him.

But after the City of Light falls under Nazi occupation, Harlan and Lizard are thrown into Buchenwald—the notorious concentration camp in Weimar, Germany—irreparably changing 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.

Listen to interviews with Bernice L. McFadden at Minnesota Public RadioThe Root & Roots Show, and KAZI Book Review (Austin, TX)

Read an interview with Bernice L. McFadden at It’s All Well + Good Magazine.

BookRiot included The Book of Harlem in Liberty Hardy’s Great Big Guide to Wonderful Books of 2016 from 100+ Indie Presses.

Read an interview with Bernice L. McFadden on Chronic Bibliophilia

The Book of Harlan listed as a Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction title for 2017.

Watch Ron Charles’s “Get in Summer Reading Shape” video, featuring The Book of Harlan, at the Washington Post and below:

 Watch The Storyscape’s video review of The Book of Harlan below:


Watch KayTheReader’s video review of The Book of Harlan below:


Book Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Published: 5/3/16
  • IBSN: 9781617754463
  • e-IBSN: 9781617754548
  • Hardcover
  • IBSN: 9781617754456


BERNICE L. McFADDEN is the author of ten 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), Glorious, and The Book of Harlan (winner of a 2017 American Book Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). She is a four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of four awards from the BCALA. Praise Song for the Butterflies is her latest novel.

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