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Review of Harlem Hellfighters

lewis_hellfightersHarlem Hellfighters
by J. Patrick Lewis; 
illus. by Gary Kelley
Intermediate, Middle School   Creative Editions   32 pp.
9/14   978-1-56846-246-2   $18.99

The story of the 15th New York National Guard, or the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all-black regiment that joined the Great War in its final year, is a revealing lens through which to view that conflict. Lewis brings a stark poetic sensibility to his topic. His free verse captures the world the men left, a training camp in the South, a place of “deputy sheriffs certain that black was not any color of the rainbow.” In fourteen words he references the irony of black men being shipped across the Atlantic — “Somewhere in the mid-Atlantic fog of history, two dark ships passed in the night…” — while in Kelley’s atmospheric illustrations enslaved men in neck shackles appear out of the mist. In “The Tally,” Lewis lets the statistics speak for themselves, contrasting the bravery of the soldiers honored by the French (“Citations: the Croix de Guerre to 171 Hellfighters; the Medal of Honor to 1 officer [white]”), with their meager recognition at home. Through the whole tragic enterprise there is music, with ragtime as a recruitment tool, a jazz version of the “Marseillaise,” musician James Europe composing songs on a beat-up piano in an abandoned French farmhouse, and happy horns on Armistice Day. An introduction gives just enough background, and especially welcome artist’s notes point out how Kelley echoes images of Monet, Delacroix, and Renoir in his illustrations. A bibliography is also included. This offering by the author-illustrator team behind the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book And the Soldiers Sang is a needed antidote to some of the more sentimental WWI books of this centennial year.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a Vancouver-based writer and critic, recently retired from the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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