Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss

Issues of race have been in the news a lot lately (hello, Paula Deen?) so reading this book now felt particularly timely to me. I had picked it up almost on a lark and thoroughly enjoyed it

Clarence King was a scientist who helped map out the West (as a way to get out of serving in the Civil War) and became pretty famous in the late 1800s, especially after he exposed a hoax involving a supposed diamond mine and saved a lot of important and rich people a lot of money. He spent time with his famous friends  like John Hay (Lincoln's personal secretary and later secretary of state under McKinley and T. Roosevelt) and James Gardiner and Henry Adams, hanging out in his clubs, and jaunting around the country on various expeditions and explorations. When he was about forty, he somehow met Ada Copeland, an African-American woman twenty years his junior, who he romanced and married, having convinced her he was a black Pullman porter names James Todd. For nearly fifteen years he lived a double life as a married black man with Ada and her children in first Brooklyn and later Queens, and as a single white man in Manhattan and Newport, devoted to his mother and his friends. The stress of the double life, particularly the financial pressures, likely helped lead to his death, but at least he had found happiness with Ada, even if he'd had to go to great lengths to conceal this secret.

Ms. Sandweiss has done extensive research, which is particularly evident and frustrating with the lack of materials about Ada. I was amazed at both how useful the census data was, and how much information one can glean from the census data. Without it, Ada would have been a ghost to history. And yet the extensive research doesn't bog down the story. It clips along at a lively pace, keeping my pages turning. Ada, after an extensive court battle against Clarence's friends after his death, trying to secure a trust he told her he had put in place for her, lived to the ripe old age of 103. This woman, who was born into slavery in Georgia in 1862, lived to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech," 101 years later, in a house bought for her by John Hay, who had watched Lincoln draft the "Emancipation Proclamation." A seemingly unremarkable woman had lived a very remarkable life.

Anyone at all interested in American history needs to read this book. Covering an era usually noted for the glossy excesses of the Gilded Age, it shows a segment of history often ignored, how life was like for African-Americans after the Civil War, before the Civil Rights movement and even before the Great Migration. And it shows how the racial laws didn't only negatively impact African-Americans, but white Americans too like Clarence King, who loved a black woman. And it wonderfully demonstrated the lengths people will go to, to be with the person they love.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

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