I like historical fiction. I liked this book set partly in Harlem, New York City, 1921 and also in Raleigh, N.C. But I must say that the author is a namedropper. Every single famous or semi-famous black American who could have been expected to show up for a cameo appearance in Harlem in 1921 is in this book: Caterina Jarboro, Duke Ellington, Bert Williams, Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson, even Madame C.J. Walker, who was dead by the time of the story, but living on in her prosperous business of providing hair care products for “Colored folks’ hair.” Then, too, the author uses historical events and places to lend authenticity to her story: the lynching of two black men in North Carolina in 1921, the North Carolina Negro State Fair, the first musical produced on Broadway starring black entertainers called Shuffle Along, and many historical markers and occasions.
I did feel as if I were in a Black history class every once in a while when I read the book, but then the story would come along and pick me back up and deposit me inside a narrative about family and friendship and forgiveness that was absorbing and universal in its themes. Celeste, the main character, lives in Raleigh with her father and her Aunt Society. Celeste’s mother died four years before the beginning of the story. In the first part of the book we spend some time getting to know Celeste (shy and quiet, but talented at playing the violin), Aunt Society (grouchy and strict), Celeste’s Poppa (hard-working and indulgent toward his only daughter), and Celeste’s almost mythical Aunt Valentina who lives in a mansion in Harlem, an actress who drives a big car and wears fancy clothes.
Then, everything changes for Celeste when her beloved Poppa must go to a sanatorium to rest and recover from tuberculosis. Aunt Society can’t take care of Celeste, and the only option left is for Celeste to go to Harlem and live with Aunt Val. Harlem life isn’t anything like what Celeste expected, and later the book changes course once again when Celeste must leave all the friends she’s made in Harlem to go back to North Carolina. The characters in the novel are complicated and multi-dimensional, and Celeste must learn, as she grows up physically, to grow in her assessments of other people, to forgive, and to understand, even as she becomes more confident in her own decisions and abilities.
I think I’ll give this book to my sixteen year old daughter who’s studying twentieth century history this year. We’re covering the decade of the twenties, and even though my dear daughter is a little older than the target audience for this book, she could learn something and enjoy reading it.
Celebrate With Books: “This is a delightful book, rich with a strong female character, who is witty and very self reliant. The author (Tate) makes the reader feel as though you are there in 1921 Harlem, New York.”
A Fuse #8 Production: “It’s so frustrating that I liked this book. I liked it so much. I thought the story of Celeste was fascinating and that the arc of the story said some wonderful things. But there were at least 75 pages that could and should have been taken out right from the start.”
Eleanora Tate’s website (including a study guide for Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance)