The Book of Harlan Summary & Study Guide

Bernice L. McFadden
This Study Guide consists of approximately 91 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Book of Harlan.
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The Book of Harlan Summary & Study Guide Description

The Book of Harlan Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden.

The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: McFadden, Bernice L. The Book of Harlan. Akashic Books, 2016.

Told in past tense, the author introduces Emma Robinson’s family as an affluent black family living in Macon, Georgia in the early 1900’s. Her father, the Reverend Tenant Robinson presides over the Cotton Way Baptist Church which puts his status in a higher level category than manual laborers or day staff. The Robinson’s lived in a Victorian cottage and used a buggy pulled by horses to travel. The author alluded to Emma having a lifestyle of want for nothing. A position unusual for blacks.

Emma Robinson is the only daughter of Reverend Tenant and Louisa Robinson, a natural-born pianist and the organist, since age seven, at her father's Cotton Way Baptist Church. Emma shared the church choir's spotlight with her best friend, Lucille Nelson, who had been singing to Emma's accompaniment since the age of seven and as an adult, became a famous blues singer. To Emma, Macon was not about the southern flowers or grand homes, instead the restless teenager saw a restricting, uneventful home town.

Sam Elliot, a carpenter, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and new to Macon. He saw Emma through the window of the barber shop. Sam asked the barber about her but learned she was the reverend's daughter and off limits. Sam pursued Emma, she noticed and liked him, they spent time together, she got pregnant and they married. Harlan Samuel Elliot was born on Christmas Eve, 1917. Harlan remained with his grandparents while his parents went off in search of the right place to settle.

Emma decided Harlem, New York City was the right place so they brought Harlan to settle into their new home. Emma spent her days doing anything it took to please Harlan. When he wanted to play the guitar, she paid for lessons. When he wanted to quit school to play guitar, she encouraged his musical talent. Harlan played on street corners with his good friend and neighbor, John Smith. Harlan went on tour with Emma's best friend, Lucille when he was 16.

While in a bar drinking, Harlan met a man he had never seen before. Harlan noticed a callous on the man’s upper lip, a sign of a trumpet player, and started a conversation about music that lasted for years. Leo, other-wise-known as Lizard Robby was introduced to the music scene of Harlem that night.

Harlan and Lizard put their skills together added the essential players and a singer and became The Harlem World Band. They played some small gigs around the city and neighboring communities. The best gig they had landed came via a telegram when Eugene Bullard invited the band to Paris, France to play in his club, L’Escadrille in Montmartre. Harlan jumped at the opportunity but had to beg Lizard to go. The reason Eugene Bullard brought the group to France was to fill the void left by bands who returned to America because of Germany’s threat of war. The same reason Lizard did not want to go.


The Harlem World Band arrived in Paris and fell into the lifestyle of sleeping all day, performing at night and partying until daybreak, a cycle that suited Harlan perfectly. Their routine became disrupted when the Germans crossed into France. Americans in France rushed to get out of the country making tickets for passage difficult to come by. Harlan and his group remained performing up until four days before they were to leave for America. The clubs filled with German soldiers becoming an intimidation factor and forcing the band to leave. Harlan and Lizard headed to their room after drinks with some women, and were confronted by a group of soldiers who did not care for the casualness of Harlan's response. It was power versus anger and both guys were beaten to the ground, taken as prisoners and placed in custody at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

In the barrack resting on the straw mattress Lizard remembered the journey that brought him to his present. Leo Benjamin Rubenstein was born to Jewish parents and grew up in St. Louis. He endured bullying from non--Jewish kids until he countered the bully's attack leaving the kid close to death and Lizard in reform school. While there, Lizard was drawn to the music he heard the black kids singing. He strayed away from the Jewish group of kids and befriended the group of blacks. His friendship deepened with Joe Brown and continued long after they were released. Joe and his family taught Lizard how to play the guitar, piano and the trumpet.

Treated as a member of the family, Lizard was transformed by the music and family bond of the Browns until Lizard's father arrived with a police officer to take him home. Mr. Brown gave Lizard his trumpet and Joe told him to stay black. Lizard moved to Kansas City to immerse himself into the music and learned he has the ability to think himself into who he wants to be. In Harlem, New York City at a bar near the room he had rented. Lizard accepted the greeting from a guy next to him and they he started talking music with a guy who knew Louis Armstrong.

At Buchenwald Lizard’s Jewish identity was discovered when a guard noticed his circumcision. The star on his uniform categorized him and he was made to suffer a horrific death at the hands of Ilse Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald.

Harlan’s body returned from Germany but his mind was possessed by the horrendous events he witnessed the past five years. Harlan had a visit from a childhood friend, John Smith, planted the seed about God having a plan for him. This seed grew in Harlan and gave him the strength to confront the evil and destroy its grip on him.

In the end, Harlan accepted the freedom given him and came to know his purpose in the plan he inherited.

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