Gone Missing in Harlem by Karla FC Holloway

This one’s a bit genre-defying. I really enjoyed it. Gone Missing in Harlem looked like a mystery at its outset, but it turned out to be broader than that. Historical fiction, clearly: it’s set in Harlem during the Great Depression, with flashbacks to Carolina (North or South, I’m not sure we ever know), highlighting the Great Migration of Black Americans from the rural South to northern cities. It handles mental health issues in several threads, and the challenges of parenting through traumas and breaking cycles. It ranges widely.

We see the title event in the very first chapter. A young mother, Selma, parks her pram just outside a grocery for a very short time while she pays for some apples; when she comes out, it is discovered that her baby is gone. An uproar immediately ensues. Harlem’s residents are horrified, excited, titillated, and incensed at the lackluster response from the police department: the city is still reeling from the disappearance and death of the Lindbergh baby, and Harlem can easily see the difference in how a poor baby from their community is treated. We do have the city’s first Black policeman on the job (and with a fresh Black cadet in tow), and he is both clever and committed. But weeks and months pass, and Selma’s baby Chloe is not recovered.

One of the things I loved best about this book was the constant shifting of perspective. While I’m fairly certain we never get a first-person point of view, chapters switch focuses in close third person perspectives between a large number of characters: Selma; the police officer; Selma’s brother Percy (aka June Bug); their mother (a central figure), DeLilah, aka Lilah, Mama Lil, or Mrs. Mosby; several members of the wealthy white family Lilah works for; the social-climbing Black woman she works for later; a neighbor down the hall; and others. (The policeman and his apprentice form a delightful Holmes-and-Watson pair – indeed with reference to their famous counterparts – and appreciate libraries, librarians and book research most pleasingly.) This multiplicity of perspectives enriches the narrative like nothing else might have, and help take this story from the (deceptively simple) mystery it might have been to a whole complex tapestry of questions, in the best way. Class is arguably as important as race, and race is complicated by colorism. Several generations address the difficulties of parenting; the complexities of love, fear, and aspiration; and the importance of making a plan. As for that deceptively simple mystery, there is a big surprise near the novel’s end that had me entirely, literally slack-jawed. I did stumble upon a handful of grammatical errors that I wish had been caught in editing, but that’s a small issue (and likely only for a few readers). I’m very impressed at the absorbing story, the wealth of those multiple POVs, and the tender handling of a broad range of issues.


Rating: 7 needles.

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