A 2011 finalist for the Man Booker Prize, Half Blood Blues follows the story of The Hot Time Swingers, a fictional jazz band who were on the verge of success as World War II broke out. Narrowly making their escape to Paris, they find themselves introduced to Louis Armstrong and not long after, surrounded by the “black boots,” when Paris fell to the German army. Their trumpet player, Hieronymous Falk, was a boy genius, who just happened to be German and black. One day he is arrested by the Germans, not to be heard from for over 50 years. The story is a reflection by American band member Sid Griffiths, and how he must come to terms with what happened all those years ago.
I loved the premise of this novel. As a fan of historical fiction, I particularly enjoy reading about segments of history that are often not told. I had heard about black Americans choosing to reside in Europe before and after World War II because of segregation and poor treatment in the United States. Half Blood Blues showed that even overseas, people of color continued to face the challenges of racism. I had two small issues with the novel. The vernacular was sometimes difficult, and I found that challenging. It also prevented me from feeling a connection with the characters. The second issue was the blatant omission of how the Americans felt about the war. They seemed to act as if it had nothing to do with them, which I found unbelievable. Despite discrimination, black Americans were every bit as patriotic as their white counterparts. Especially since they had first hand experience with the terrors of the Nazis, I wondered why there were no discussions about enlisting in any army to fight them.
Still, it was a very good look at a time period and a world that I haven’t run across before.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2011