As I've alluded to here a couple of times, my academic background isn't in STEM, but the humanities: English and philosophy, to be more specific. Here is an incomplete but relatively comprehensive list of what I read for the English portion of that degree:
- A bunch of poetry I don't care about because I don't get poetry and never will.
- Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Great Expectations, Emma, Nightwood, Mrs. Dalloway.
- Paradise Lost and some assorted essays and poetry by John Milton, which is the rare exception to my distaste for poetry.
- Edgar Huntly, Last of the Mohicans, Arthur Gordon Prym, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Benito Cereno
- A Passage to India, Kim, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (selections), Invisible Cities
- Winesburg Ohio, Waiting for Lefty, In Our Time, Invisible Man, Light in August, The Souls of Black Folk,* Cane
- A Dream Play, Kallocain, Aniara, Women and Apple Trees, Money, Doctor Glass, Blackwater, The Visit of the Royal Physician, A Burnt Child, Nils Holgersson
It's a very weird and spotty list because I was technically a Creative Writing major, not a pure English major, so I was in a lot of writing workshop classes instead of jumping too deep into critical analysis or any kind of comprehensive scope of the English literature canon. All of this is to say that despite my background, there are pretty huge gaps in my literary knowledge and I'm pretty sure that's why I'd never heard of Nella Larsen before.
This is why I love my book club. The organizers are excellent at finding classics I would otherwise have missed entirely!
Passing is the story of Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry. Both women are mixed race; Irene is "out" (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently "passing" (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene's life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until things reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.
I don't want to spoil too much, because I think it's an excellent psychological thriller story. It's superbly plotted, especially in the last section—a real page-turner.
I will say that much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don't think would be quite as relevant today. Normally that would feel dated in a book, but in this case I think it just highlights what a different time it was. Not that we've suddenly gone post-racial, of course; just that we've at least more or less abandoned the "one drop" rule and related thinking. (I hope?) The way Clare Kendry is described, she might as well be Aryan Princess Taylor Swift; someone like her being written off as black says a lot about an America still in living memory.
Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more universal: secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it's also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.
Seeing as we're in the last week of African American** History month, Passing would be a great read. It's a quick, snappy little book that you can finish in a couple days, and it's available on the Internet Archive. I hope you give it a chance, because I really enjoyed it!
*By W. E. B. DeBois, according to the DOE! #alternatefacts