Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bernice L. McFadden's Glorious

Bernice L. McFadden’s latest novel Glorious should be glorious, but strangely it takes a fascinating period in African American history---the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Era---and tells it like a survey history class. McFadden covers all the requisite material but only scratches at the surface.

Easter Venetta Bartlett, McFadden’s heroine, born at the turn of century in Waycross, Georgia, escapes southern racism and poverty to become a highly praised author during the Harlem Renaissance, only to see her rise to literary fame destroyed by false charges of plagiarism. She ends up a maid back in her hometown during the early sixties where her past comes back to haunt her.

In Easter, McFadden has a compelling character, even if at times her actions seem unbelievable. During the first 100 pages, Easter experiences or witnesses experiences that cover the gamut of African American history in the early 20th century, but little of those experiences affect her emotional well being. Considering everything she’s been through, you’d expect Easter to be an emotional wreck or at least as hardhearted as her friend and unrequited love, Rain, a burlesque dancer Easter works for (and later replaces when Rain suffers an accident) on her travels north to New York. Instead Easter moves from one town to the next and one incident to the next with little emotional resonance.

There’s an epic somewhere in McFadden’s slim novel. At 235 pages, she rushes through Easter’s back story when she should have expanded upon it, allowing the story to unravel at its own pace. In the end, what should have been an epic journey feels truncated and glossed over, which is a shame because her subject matter is fascinating. The Harlem Renaissance was the first time when black people in general and black artists in particular were finally able to express themselves politically and artistically. Artists as renowned as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston rose to prominence during this period (McFadden’s Glorious is in fact based on two Harlem Renaissance writers, Hurston and Nella Larsen, who, like Easter, had seen her literary career destroyed by plagiarism charges).

I suspect the reason why McFadden chose to tell such a truncated story was due to difficulties in finding a home for her novel, a fact she alludes to in the book's acknowledgments. In an Op-Ed piece she wrote for the Washington Post earlier this year, she remarked on the difficulties she and other black writers are facing in the publishing industry, especially in these hard economic times. I imagine that a larger, more epic tale would have been an even harder sell on the marketplace. This is a shame, since it’s apparent that there was a lot of story McFadden wanted to tell. I can’t help but wonder what she would have accomplished with this story if she had the space and time to really tell it in all its true glory.

That’s why I still recommend reading Glorious. In spite of its shortfalls, it does treat an interesting period in black history with reverence and detail and the characters and story are still compelling enough to make a decent read. Glorious could have been a true epic of one woman's journey through early 20th century Black America, but for now, like a good  history survey class, it only offers readers a glimpse. It will be up to readers to research the rest.

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