McFadden Blurs Fact And Fiction In ‘Glorious’

July 24, 2010  |  

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Bernice L. McFadden’s Glorious is the kind of book that quickly becomes dog-eared, highlighted and passed around to friends and family.  The story features decadent and delicate details of Easter Bartlett’s winding path from the stifling Jim Crow South to the excitement and possibility of the Harlem Renaissance.

Always on the run from something, but never to anything in particular, Easter’s semi-nomadic lifestyle brings an armload of eclectic characters into her life who are colorful in every way.

McFadden’s Easter is a fictional character who shares a few autobiographical details from the lives of some of  history’s most famous black female writers. But McFadden also includes more than a few real life people and events.  Some of the people, Madames will recognize instantly.  Mc Fadden, who wrote and researched for six years before completing Glorious, imagines what these real life people would say or do in these probable situations. In McFadden’s world, a well-dressed Langston Hughes takes a moment to stare longingly at a waiter while attending one of those now famous soirees that were packed with Harlem Renaissance’s best and thriving talent.   McFadden does not explicitly say “Langston Hughes was gay.” She allows that brief, subtle moment to speak for the decades of rumors.

Many of McFadden’s real life characters are more obscure personas from the Harlem Renaissance era.  She introduces readers to people like James Wormley Jones, the nation’s first black FBI agent who was also the man who infiltrated Marcus Garvey’s inner circle and played a critical role in gathering evidence for Garvey’s arrest on mail fraud.  Also making a brief but important appearance is Ota Benga, the 4’11 African man who was put on display in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo in the early part of the 20th century.

McFadden fudges dates and circumstances of real life events in order to fit her story and for the most part, her blend of fact and fiction is seamless and inviting.  She does not explain who is real and who is not and she does not offer footnotes for added details. The story works well even if the reader has no clue that some of the characters are real people. For the more historically inclined, Glorious has an added layer of entertainment while trying to figure out how much of particular scenes are true.

One of the most striking features of McFadden’s writing is her ability to capture a moment, a place. “The air up there, up south, up in Harlem, was sticky sweet and peppered with perfume, sweat, sex, curry, salt meat, sautéed chicken livers and  fresh baked breads.” Without yet describing one iota of the actual people in Harlem, McFadden brings that early 20th century scene to life through smell alone.

Though at times the inclusion of certain historical characters seems a bit forced and unnecessary, overall, Glorious is a great read. McFadden is a masterful storyteller who weaves truly surprising plot twists into an engaging tale of tragedy, class, race, sexual suppression and most of all, the seemingly endless search for something better.

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