Passing – Nella Larson (1929)

A short but powerful novel featuring the social world of African Americans in the 1920’s and the act of “passing”, where an African American with light skin would live life as if they were a white person.

Remember the 1920’s were not a friendly time for people of color in the US as racial discrimination was rampant in every facet of life. To “pass” as a white person would mean turning your back on your own race, but it also allowed you access to another world – the world of the privileged white person. However, it was not without its own set of risks. To pass as a white person meant basing your whole life on a lie, a foundation of balanced playing cards that could easily topple with one wrong word or action. It’s hard to imagine the stress that this would involve…

And then, to add to the racial stress the usual worries of marriage and other relationships, fidelity, and trust – well it makes for an explosive story. Irene Redfield has been happily married (mostly) to her husband Brian and they have a family of two young boys.  (The Redfields are African American and are living as such.) An old childhood friend of Irene’s re-enters her life after years of absence and this relationship leads to unrest for the Redfields for a variety of reasons.

The old friend, Clare Kendry, has been successfully “passing” for years, and has an unsuspecting white husband who is very racist. Things could get ugly very quickly should the truth be told at some point… Irene reluctantly allows Clare to rekindle their friendship but in doing so, enables Clare to worm her way into her life on all levels – she even worries about Clare stealing her husband. But how to fix this situation?

As the story progresses and Irene becomes more and more threatened and desperate to save her wobbly marriage, a shocking solution bubbles up and there is an ending which surprised the heck out of me. (I love surprise endings like this…) And this was not a “wrapped up in a bow” ending as it leads you to ponder what exactly did happen in the end…?

This was a book that did not pull me in at first, but after reading for a while, I became really intrigued with all the various layers of the plot. (It was also helped by the fact that I had wrenched my knee badly the night before and was stuck on the sofa all afternoon avoiding crutches.) As I think about this, I did not enjoy the actual reading of the book that much until I finished It and thought about it. It’s a story that makes you question what happened for a long time afterwards – and that, for me, is a good read.

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