Book Review: The Harlem Hellfighters

The Harlem Hellfighters is a fictionalized telling of the real experience of the 369th Infantry, an African American regiment who fought under the French flag in World War I. Author, Brooks, masterfully puts the reader behind the line of fire with the soldiers and doesn’t shy away from the racism and blight suffered by the men.

Historical facts are peppered throughout the pages: “A whole town gone, every day, for four years,” and we are introduced to the origin of historical phrases: “Colored man is no slacker.” (on a poster recruiting soldiers for a regiment called “The Black Rattlers”.Once training begins, it is obvious that race makes a difference in the equipment and supplies awarded. White troops are issued new guns while the black troops train using broomsticks.

Beautifully interwoven through the story are references too and samples from the poems of Alan Seeger. Seeger was an American poet who fought and died in WWI while serving in the French Foreign Legion. For those who are leery of a war graphic novel which includes poetry, be unafraid, there is plenty of brutality and gore. From rats grinding through the trenches, to lice covering the men’s bodies, to bayonets making impact in soldiers faces and bombs dismembering soldiers, no detail is shied away from.

Perhaps the most noble quality that Max Brooks brings to the story-telling is a sense of humor. To survive such grievous conditions one must have survival tools and humor seems a realistic one for soldiers to latch on to.

The illustrations of Caanan White are perfectly matched to Brook’s writing. I am writing my review based on a black and white preview copy and therefore can’t comment on color and the quality of reproductions on the final print.

This title is an excellent tool for students who struggle with being introduced to new material. Once a reluctant reader sees this perspective of war they will likely be more open to reading more traditional material. This would make a fabulous tool to include in discussing America’s history of race issues and it serves as a meaningful and fulfilling read for any fans of the graphic novels.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Pub Date: April 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-46497-2
Page Count: 256 pages
Publisher: Broadway Books

* Thank you Broadway Books for providing this review copy in exchange for my honest review.

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