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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The explosion of the memoir form in recent years has led to a deluge of family histories. But Edward Ball's fascinating book is something different. It tells the epic story of the Harleston family of Charleston, South Carolina -- relatively affluent mixed-race blacks who trace their roots to the illicit relationship between a plantation heir and his slave, and are distantly related to Ball, a white southerner by birth. Through interviews with Edwina Harleston Whitlock, the genteel grandmother who unlocks the secrets of the Harleston archives, Ball interweaves the rich and sometimes tragic family history along with the broad sweep of contemporary events, from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the First World War and Jim Crow laws.
As members of the mixed-race elite, the Harlestons occupied a strange interstitial zone between resentful blacks and snobbish whites -- a zone that was especially well defined in conservative Charleston. They viewed themselves as part of the "talented tenth," following W.E.B. Du Bois's conception of a small group of privileged African Americans leading the rest. But this promoted a fortress mentality and "more than its share of anxiety and wounded pride." It was the "sweet hell inside" of the book's title: a defiant sense of permanent exclusion from both camps, which governed relations between the family and those around it.
The family ran several funeral homes in and around Charleston, but several of its members pushed out into unfamiliar territory. "From their beginnings as the discarded children of a case of 'miscegenation,' the Harleston family rose to play strange and wonderful roles in the American pageant," Ball writes. Edwin "Teddy" Harleston, Edwina's melancholy grandfather, became a well-regarded portrait painter who worked alongside his photographer wife. When Teddy entered Boston's Museum School in 1906, he was one of a handful of serious black art students in the United States. He later returned to Charleston to work in the family business and founded a local chapter of the NAACP. Edmund "Jenks" Jenkins was a classically trained composer who played in the jazz bands of 1920s Paris. Another Harleston relative ran a Charleston orphanage that became famous for its associated musical group, the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which toured Europe and sent several alumni into the New York jazz scene.
While chronicling the rich history of the Harlestons in staggering detail -- thanks to archival research and diligent perusal of letters and scrapbooks -- Ball offers interesting disquisitions on everything from the etymology of the word "jazz" to the process of embalming a cadaver. The Sweet Hell Inside is itself a fascinating attempt to preserve an unusual slice of the American experience -- in all its painful ambivalence. (Jonathan Cook)
Jonathan Cook lives in New York City.