I just finished reading Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan and I understand now why it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. At first I was concerned that the style of the voice might get in the way of the story, but it didn’t. This book is beautifully written!
As a teenager I found learning about the World Wars worked best for me through story, through fiction. For my final ISU (Independent Study Unit) in Grade 13, I chose to compares And No Birds Sang by Farley Mowat and The Wars by Timothy Findley. I was fascinated by the real, human experiences of war and the different points of view. Reading fiction helped me to better understand the effects and the consequences of the facts I was learning in class. I truly wish that Esi Edugyan had written her novel Half-Blood Blues 14 years ago!
I love jazz and I love the blues. I remember in while I was in high school I wouldn’t let my Dad listen to the smooth jazz station because I told him it was imitations, weak imitations, or something real. Instead, I made him listen to the crackly jazz station from Toronto that played REAL jazz. I also loved the blues. I ended up taking a guitar class my last year of high school to fill some open credits. For the class, we had to research a famous guitarist and I chose Eric Clapton, Slowhand. To this day, I still love listening to jazz and blues and any band that throws back to these classic styles I enjoy as well.
Throughout the novel, Edugyan moves slow. The narrative is smooth, yet there are moments that shock you and pull you back into the slow unwinding of the story. Sid, Chip, and Hiero are jazz musicians during World War II and somehow they end of playing together in Europe. Other members of the band disappear because they are Jewish or forced to stay in Germany while these three flee to Paris with the help of Louis Armstrong. It seems surreal, yet Edugyan shows the pain and the suffering, the uncertainty and the fear through not only their interactions with each other, but also through their music. As we learn more about these characters, we start to understand more of this period of history from a different angle: Hiero’s father is an African soldier brought up to Germany, and so he is a mixed-race German. Sid and Chip are Americans, over in Europe touring and happen to get caught up in the war, yet are paranoid that they will disappear next because of their skin colour.
Edugyan is able to share some insights into Europe at the outbreak of World War II from a different angle and I truly enjoyed her style. She took something horrific, and brought it into the world of jazz, much like America was doing to protest against the Jim Crow Laws and extreme racism. At one point in the novel, Louis Armstrong wants the guys to play a German song as a show of defiance. Armstrong feels that it is necessary, and something that he can do to protest and bring attention to horrors of what was happening in Germany. Like in every generation, it is the artists who stand up and bring truth to the public. It is the artists who risk everything to share what is right. As I reflect on the US election and the pain and division in most of the Western world, I can’t help but believe that it will be the artists who bring us back to our humanity.
“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.” (Esi Edugyan)
“Do no be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)