The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley – Review by Kate Hannigan
“Who gets to decide what is important about a community?” asks debut novelist Natasha Tarpley in her middle-grade mystery The Harlem Charade (January 31, Scholastic). “Who gets to tell our stories?”
Setting her fascinating adventure in Harlem, with its rich history of African American art, music, literature, and dance, Tarpley explores ideas of gentrification and how neighborhood changes directly affect the lives of the people who live there. At the same time, she unfurls a fast-paced mystery with roots in the turbulent 1960s.
Three young detectives set out to solve the mystery, which grows more complicated with every clue. First is Jin, who lives with her Korean grandparents and helps out at their grocery store, or bodega. From her perch inside the store, Jin watches the familiar faces coming and going each day. When she spies an African-American girl named Alex sneaking around the store performing anonymous acts of kindness, Jin is intrigued. But Alex proves tough to get to know. She’s ashamed of her family’s tremendous wealth, and her secrets nearly undermine the burgeoning friendship.
Soon the girls are thrown together with a dreadlocked boy wearing an oversized black coat—his grandfather’s. Elvin has just moved into the neighborhood from California to live with his grandfather while his mother battles an illness back in Berkeley. But Elvin’s grandfather has been attacked, leaving him comatose in Harlem Hospital. And now, scrawny Elvin is on his own.
Jin and Alex team up with Elvin to figure out who assaulted Elvin’s grandfather. But their investigations quickly turn up a much bigger case, as they learn that a local politician wants to demolish much of their beloved neighborhood and transform it into a tacky theme park called Harlem World.
Tarpley’s smart, endearing trio learns the power of working together and believing in each other as they dig deeper. Uncovering a complex mystery from Harlem’s 1960s art scene involving a group of rebellious artists who call themselves the “Invisible 7,” Elvin, Jin, and Alex are soon chasing down clues to find a missing masterpiece that might help them save their neighborhood.
For fans of historical fiction, Tarpley’s author’s note explains that the art mystery and the Invisible 7 are inspired by real events related to a 1969 exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,” which essentially shut out Harlem’s own black artists. And further notes allow for deeper understanding of places and ideas in the book, and offer launching points for visiting actual Harlem sites.
Fun, fast-paced, and full of big questions about social justice, Harlem Charade offers readers a thrilling adventure while at the same time inspiring them to think about kindness, fairness, and the power of art to tell our stories.
Kate Hannigan, a devoted fan of historical fiction, is the author of The Detective’s Assistant, a history-mystery inspired by America’s first woman detective and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and winner of a Nerdie Award. Visit her online at KateHannigan.com.