Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Passing: Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen was published in 1929 and was one of only two books by this American author. It is the story of two childhood friends who meet up again by chance in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African-American women who can pass for white. Clare Kendry continues to live in Chicago and has married a white man who does not know that she has Negro blood. The couple have a daughter. Irene Redfield is married to a black doctor; they live in Harlem with their two young boys. Later, Clare wants to continue her friendship with Irene, and Irene resists.

The story is told primarily from Clare's point of view and focuses on her home life, her reactions to Clare, and how the continuation of their friendship affects both of their lives. For me it was an eye-opening picture of the black community in Harlem in the 1920's.

As Clare continues to force her way into Irene's life, it is strange how strongly Irene reacts. At first Irene's husband is disapproving of Clare, then he begins to accept her and enjoy her presence. Clare's husband is very antagonistic towards Negroes, so Clare's visits with the Redfields are in secret. Clare seems to be running away from her life in white society when she visits New York. She is risking her marriage and the loss of her child if her husband becomes aware of her background, but she seems to want that to happen. Irene finds her irritating but irresistible.

Irene meanwhile seems to ignore the fact that racism exists and doesn't want her children to have to deal with that. Her husband is unhappy with their life in New York and wants to move to Brazil where he hopes they would have a better life. Their relationship is very conflicted. Clare's entry into their life, even on an occasional basis, begins to bring Irene's marital problems to the forefront.

The reader can sympathize with Clare's desire to live a different life where she is treated as an equal, but we can also see that the subterfuge takes a great toll on her. It is also interesting that both of these women are married to well-to-do men and have servants. They have attained a dream of wealth and a family, but both are unhappy.

For such a short novel (in my copy less than a hundred pages), this is a very complex story. Some readers were dissatisfied with the ending. I found it surprising but felt that it fit in with the story, leaving some things up in the air. The themes in this book go beyond racism, to the role of women, identity, and the difficulty of relationships. In addition, it is extremely well written.

My first introduction to this book was at Clothes in Books in a post by guest blogger Colm Redmond. I urge you to check out his insights in that post.

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Publisher:  BN Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1929).
Length:      94 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Harlem, New York (mainly)
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.


18 comments:

  1. This was the first book I read with my book group in 2001. Right now we are reading LOVING DAY by Mat Johnson, which deals with similar themes albeit somewhat more lightheartedly.

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    1. Thanks for pointing me to Loving Day, Patti. That book looks very interesting, and also his other books. Mat Johnson is a totally new author to me. I will be looking for some of his books.

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  2. I remember that post on Clothes in Books, Tracy; and I remember thinking that it sounded like a very interesting and complex story. I'm glad you thought it was well-written and with well-developed characters. I need to look into this more...

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    1. In addition to all the other good points this book has, Margot, I really like to learn about a time in history from a book written at the time. It feels very authentic.

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  3. Sounds interesting, Tracy. I don't think I've ever read a story about 'passing'. Especially one written in 1929. Though I can easily imagine why someone would do that given the still on-going racial strife in this country. Who would imagine that in the 21st century we'd still be dealing with this sort of thing.

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    1. I know, Yvette, when Obama was elected I thought things had changed a good bit for the better, but clearly not. This was a good read and enlightening for me.

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  4. Despite the sociological and political advances we've made since those days, I believe privately these sorts of struggles continue. Racial prejudices are deeply rooted, and you can never be certain when something will sprout from a seemingly happy situation. Social status remains a powerful force, and probably always will.

    Fascinating review, Tracy.

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    1. Thanks, Mathew. I do believe there is more awareness and some barriers have been removed, at least in the work place, but in other areas I don't see things being a lot different from when I grew up in Alabama. On the surface it had seemed so.

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    1. I suppose not, but it is very interesting.

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  6. Tracy, I can see that this is an intense and powerful novel, and I wouldn't mind reading it at some point. I recall reading novels with Harlem and Brooklyn as settings, where characters had to overcome great odds to make something of their lives. I think author Harold Robbins set some of his novels in these places.

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    1. I would like to read more about this subject related to other areas of the country, in that time period, Prashant. It was very interesting to me.

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  7. TracyK: Having just read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult your review resonated with me. Set a couple of years ago the main character, Ruth Jefferson, is working as a nurse in a mainly hospital, living in a mainly white neighborhood and having her son attend a mainly white school. Ruth, a woman of color (her preferred description) is not passing but the stress of a lifetime of fitting into white society has worn her down. It must have been exhausting to be passing in the 1920's.

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    1. I agree, Bill, it is hard to even imagine the mental energy it takes to live that kind of life. Small Great Things by Jodi Picault sounds good but it seems like it would be a difficult and intense read.

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  8. So glad you enjoyed this Tracy - I think it's a marvellous book, and I'm sure Colm will be very pleased that you read it.

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    1. Yes, definitely a good book and re-readable too. I got a lot more out of it as I re-read parts to write the review. I was grateful that I had Colm's post to point me to the book.

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    2. I'm delighted that my post got you reading the book and enjoying it, Tracy. You've made me feel very tempted to reread it myself and pay more attention to the characters' divergent attitudes to race.

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    3. I don't read much outside of the crime fiction genre, Colm, but I would like to find more books like this, written in this time period. The fact that it came from a woman's point of view made it more interesting for me too.

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