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Bloomfield Hills author writes novel exploring black man's life through WWI, civil rights era

The story mirrors the story of the author's own father, born in the 1800s in Trinidad who later emigrated to Harlem.

It began with an email from a child in the family.

William G. Herbert o was the eldest in the family when he was asked by a young relative to tell the story of an immigrant man from Trinidad: His father.

He told the tale of his father, set in the late 1800s, who made his way to the US on a boat bounded to New York, then knocked the streets of Harlem, and fought during World War I in the first African-American military division.

The email trail of replies and responses made Herbert realize that he was writing a novel: A Place Near the Front, a historical fiction book pieced together based on memory, a coming-of-age story inspired by his father.

“I couldn’t stop writing this thing,” Herbert, who now lives in Bloomfield Hills, tells BLAC. “It started off as just a little routine email, and a year and a half later it became my first book.”

Growing up, Herbert says that he had a pleasant childhood but knew very little about his father’s backstory. His father died while he was young, and his mother died shortly after.

Like his father, Herbert joined the military while taking in and caring for his younger sister. He resumed college soon after and majored in his father’s dream career; engineering.

“My father came to the U.S. in 1915 as a merchant seaman, jumped ship in New York, and found his way to Harlem to Howard University,” Herbert says. “He studied engineering, but when he finished, he couldn’t get a job. So he went back to dental school after serving in the military. He always wanted me to be the engineer that he couldn’t be.”

Here’s a passage from the book by the main character, Gordon Herbert:

“Although I work long, hard hours aboard the Mariposa, there are many things about the ship I like. To me, she is a floating symbol of all that is new and modern in the twentieth century. With electric lights, modern plumbing, radio, navigation devices and comfortable passenger staterooms, she seems generations ahead of the small city of San Fernando in the South of Trinidad where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.”

Although the story is based on the life of Herbert’s dad, it’s not exactly a biography. He says that while many details are stories from his father, he augmented the rest with heavy research and then filled in the rest.

Along with the book highlighting the hardships that blacks endured in the past, Herbert hopes that A Place Near the Front will make readers face relevant current issues such as racism and immigration.

“We see this today, immigrants who have done great things -- Blacks, Hispanic, Arabs -- [people] of all strips and colors who have done great things, but are still facing discrimination here. There’s a lot of recurring themes.”

Herbert is scheduled to have two book signings at 4 p.m. March 11 at Source Booksellers in Detroit and another at 6 p.m. on April 25 at Pages Bookstore

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