Sunday, July 13

The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks

They are one of America’s best kept secrets. Serving in World War I, they spent more time in combat than other American units and were never overtaken by their enemies. Not a single man was captured, and they were well decorated. Despite all of this, this unit, comprised of African Americans, face discrimination from their own country.

Written by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White, The Harlem Hellfighters seeks to not only show us the accomplishments of the 369th Infantry Regiment, but also to show us the horrors of racism they faced. Indeed, this is where this graphic novel best succeeds.

The horrors of war are in full display, as we see and read about the violent end of many lives. But somehow this is not the most disturbing part of the story. No, most disturbing is seeing how the members of the 369th were treated by their fellow citizens, all because of the color of their skin. When being deployed to a camp in the south, the regiment was directed not to engage with any physical confrontations with the locals, even if they were clearly provoked. It isn’t long before such a provocation occurs, when one young man is assaulted in broad daylight by a group of white men. Later, after the regiment is deployed in Europe, there is an attempt to restrict their actions to avoid any positive attention being drawn to them.

From the opening pages I found myself engrossed in the story. I don’t recall hearing anything about this regiment in any of my history classes. Based on a note in the back of the book, it sounds like even some history scholars were not aware of their involvement. Brooks’ words roll of the page, and I could almost imaging someone such as Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington reading the narration.

The artwork is equally engrossing. While some may not like the black and white style, I felt that it gave the story more gravitas. It also had the interesting effect of making it a little bit more difficult to distinguish between African American and white characters in the wider images, helping to carry the idea that skin color should not matter.

While the story and illustrations were strong, I felt the weakest part of The Harlem Hellfighters was the characterization. Perhaps it’s because I don’t read many graphic novels, but I often had a hard time differentiating between the characters. Still, even though I had a hard time with, the strong narration of the story carried me through, and I did not want to put this book down.

4/5 Stars

I received this book free from Random House as part of their Blogging for Books program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255

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