Sunday, December 9, 2018

Passing by Nella Larsen

My favorite time of year and time to listen to my favorite seasonal music.  Here is a great introduction, Sing We Now of Christmas, performed by Taylor Festival Choir.

My boxes of Christmas cards waiting for me.  I hope to get that done this week.

PassingPassing by Nella Larsen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best books I've read this year.

Passing is the story about two African American women in the 1920s, who, due to their mixed racial heritages, "pass" as white.

At the time of this story that can be convenient because of the segregated and racist society they live in.

Irene Redfield lives in Harlem, but is visiting her hometown of Chicago to see family. Though black people are not allowed, because she can "pass" as a white woman, she enters a restaurant for a glass of tea and a rest from walking around in the heat of the city. While sitting there she notices a beautiful blonde woman at the next table staring at her.

Why is she staring, Irene wonders. Surely she cannot know that she, Irene, is not "really" white. No one ever guesses. Finally the other woman calls her name. It turns out the woman is a childhood friend named Clare. Clare is also "black" but looks "white" (see how crazy the whole concept of different races is?)

Clare is glad to see her and shares her life since they saw each other last, which was when they were very young, which is why Irene did not immediately recognize her. Clare has "passed" herself off as white and lives in the white community and is married to a white man, who has no idea, that he is married to a "colored" woman (her husband, very much a racist, uses a stronger term to describe black people, but I'm trying to stay polite).

This is the projectile for the story. Irene does not want to pursue any kind of relationship with Clare. She feels that Clare is playing a dangerous game that could cost her everything, including her young daughter.

But Clare is determined to re-enter the community of her youth and, behind her husband's back (his work causes him to travel a lot), travels to Harlem to visit Irene against the latter woman's wishes. The rest of the story is as fascinating as it is suspenseful as the reader watches and waits to see what is going to happen.

The story is told in third person limited from Irene's point of view. What I find really superb about Larsen's writing is that we read all of Irene's thoughts and how she views herself and everyone involved, while revealing that ultimately she is a selfish and imminently insecure person.

Irene's husband, Brian, who could not "pass" is highly educated and a doctor. He is not happy living in Harlem, even though they have a nice house and servants. Their social circle is equally educated and well-off. Larsen gives us an insiders' view of a Harlem that flaunts today's racial stereotypes. Belonging to a certain race or neighborhood, does not automatically mean a person is living in government housing or graduating from failing public schools.

Irene's two sons go to a good school, she has a set of good, fun friends that include not only black people but also white people, although she notes that many of the white people are of the Bohemian life style and going to Harlem to interact with black people is a self-conscious part of proving to the world how progressive they are. The other motive is curiosity and entertainment.

Brian wants to move to Brazil and start anew there. Irene is determined that they will not go. Brian has to be made to understand that their happiness, their children's happiness, lies in remaining in Harlem. She wins the battle, but as we read on, we see she ultimately loses the war.

Because Clare insists on intruding into their lives, which brings all of Irene's insecurities to the surface. Irene is not beautiful. Clare is and she spends a lot of time with Irene's family and as Irene's husband seems to approve of her presence, even enjoy it, doubts and fears plague Irene. What can she do about it? Should she betray Clare to her husband and get rid of her?

No, that would be worse. That would force Clare to return to the black community and Irene wants her out; out of her life and far away from everything she holds dear.

What happens next is a chain of events that determine the course of everyone's lives and brings the novel to its dramatic conclusion.

Whether this sort of story interests you or not, and it interests me because I've always been fascinated by race and culture and the complex relationship between the two, Larsen's writing is beautiful. None of her characters use dialect, countering another racial stereotype, which seems to be prevalent even among African American writers today.

Larsen shows a society among the African Americans in another time period that, in my opinion, is radically different from the neat and narrow categories we make today.

Nella Larsen wrote two novels and some short stories before disappearing into obscurity, working as a nurse until her death. This is a tragedy, because her writing is so fluid and eloquent and I wish there was more of her work to read.

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  1. Great review Sharon. The book sounds fascinating. As you alluded to it sounds different and out of the box. Race and culture are fascinating subjects. I agree, there is some tendency these days to push folks into boxes based upon their race. It is refreshing to see stories that buck that trend.

    1. Hi Brian. I have always been fascinated by what constitutes race. How someone who looks "white" is still "black". I guess it has to do with culture.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful book and is going on my TBR list. I wonder why Larsen stopped writing. It might be interesting to find out a little bit more about her life. In any case, excellent review! :-)

    1. Hi Cleo. I have a biography on her that I intend to read after the new year. Hopefully it will shed a little more light.

  3. Definitely interesting!!!! I wanted you to share spoilers!!!! I guess I have to add another book to my TBR.

    1. Hi Ruth. You would really enjoy her writing. To me it was elegant and witty. It did not conform at all to current trends for "ethnic" writing.

  4. i recall seeing this book somewhere but i haven't read it, i think, anyway... perceptive post: it gives a tantalizing intro to the book w/o revealing the finale. it's very true that there are, i think i'm repeating myself, well over 6 billion universes on this planet: every individual has a pov and exists in his/her own reality...

    1. Hi mudpuddle! I often think how there is only one person in the whole wide world who we can not see face to face and that is ourselves. The closest we get is a mirror or photograph. I don't know why but that disturbs me when I think about it. Anyway, your comment that everyone has a point of view sparked that thought.

    2. whenever we look in a mirror, we see ourselves turned 180 degrees, so what we're looking at is not us, it's someone else... i've been bemused by that: it's a clue to a lot of contrariness in the world, i sometimes think...

    3. Mudpuddle, I had not thought of that. But it does bother me that the one person we spend every second of our existence with is the only person whose face we cannot see in reality. I think I'm probably just strange.

    4. you're now a paid-in-full member of the Mudpuddle not-so-average Club/ you should have received your prize in the mail... (lolol, of course!)

    5. I'm glad you think so. I made the same comment to my husband and he wanted to know what I was smoking.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.