“Look, kid, don’t be sore. You hit them skins good for you age. But playing good for you age don’t mean you playing good for the ages. ‘Less you a Bolden, or a Jelly Roll or something. And they don’t come along but maybe twice a century. Listen, jazz, it ain’t just music; it life. You got to have experience to make jazz. I ain’t never heard no one under eighteen even sound like he know which end of his instrument to hold.”
Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths have been friends since they were little boys in Baltimore. Now they’re old men in Baltimore, but in between, they were jazz musicians, caught in Europe during World War II. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. The letter forces the friends to relive the war and face up to the consequences of their choices.
Narrated in the person person by Sid, Half-Blood Blues has an almost musical voice. It takes some time to settle into the colloquial style, but ultimately Sid’s voice is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Equally compelling is the way in which Esi Edugyan brings jazz-age Europe to life, highlighting the plight of black people caught under the Nazi regime, a topic which is rarely addressed in World War II fiction. Half-Blood Blues is an education in jazz music and black European history and a counter-point the better known story of the persecution of the Jews. Although we know what is coming in the war, Edugyan creates tension within the personal narratives of the characters, recounting old grudges and misunderstandings. The chapters about the war are interspersed with the chapters about Sid and Chip’s journey back to Berlin, and on to Poland. The unfolding backstory increasingly contextualizes Sid’s anxiety about coming face-to-face with Hiero again, forcing him to confront his profound jealousy of Hiero’s talent, and his own contradictory self-image.
On Canada Reads 2014, Half-Blood Blues was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey. Samantha Bee, Stephen Lewis, and Sarah Gadon cast the three votes which made it the second book to be eliminated, after Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. While the panelists acknowledged the literary merits of Half-Blood Blues, Bailey failed to make a convincing argument for the contemporary relevance of the book as one that will inspire change in Canada today. Bailey actually made some of his most salient points in the Q&A after the debate, pointing out that racial profiling still affects freedom of movement in the modern world, a theme which is prevalent as the characters try to escape Nazi Germany and then German-occupied France. On literary merit alone, Half-Blood Blues is an extremely strong contender but this year’s theme of inspiring social change proved to be its downfall.
More World War II Fiction:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka