Friday, June 03, 2005

Review - Angel of Harlem by Kuwana Haulsey

In Angel of Harlem: A Novel, Kuwana Haulsey recounts the remarkable life of Harlem's first woman doctor, Dr. May Chinn. Told in a mixture of first and third person, this fictional biography is at its most absorbing once the author settles in to telling May's tale, beginning with her childhood. The first few chapters jumped from May's first person recollections of her father to the latter's escape from slavery during the American Civil War.

May herself is an engaging character, by turn vulnerable, intelligent and tough. Drawing strength from her remarkable mother, May perseveres through illness, heartbreak and resistance to her ambitions from both her father and society. Far from a cardboard character she comes across as a passionate and dedicated musician and doctor as well as a fun-loving, sometimes rebellious young woman and loyal friend.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries came alive through the author's setting which was detailed, yet not overwhelming. Similarly, the racial prejudice that existed, while not glossed over, doesn't dominate either. Though May and her parents dominate, all the characters both appealed and were true to their time. The story moves along well, following May from her childhood through to her life's end. I finished the book in two nights, not wanting to put it down.

Aside from the slightly disjointed beginning, I found the final chapter a bit of an anti-climax. It appeared almost as an after-thought, included to wrap up the story when the same information would have been just as effectively included in the Author's Note.

That said, this minor quibble by no means should discourage readers from picking up this inspiring novel about a woman who dedicated her life to helping others, despite the many obstacles thrown in her path. One for my keeper shelf and highly recommended.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

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