Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss (2009)

The front cover blurb says, “A gilded age tale of love and deception across the color line,” but there was no real love story here, just a lot of suppositions.  I was intrigued by the story: Clarence King, a famous 19th century scientist known for surveying and mining the West, was a white man who passed as black and took a second identity of James Todd.  He lived a double life in New york: in one, he hobnobs with the president, politicians, and scientists in a powerful white world, and in the other, he marries a black woman, lives in a middle class Queens neighborhood, and raises 4 kids.  He keeps the two lives entirely separate.  So the idea of the book is pretty fascinating.  The problem is that it’s really a dry account of King’s journeys and offers virtually nothing of his private life.  Why?  Because there is little information about his life with Ada Copeland, and so Sandweiss fills pages and pages with phrases like “Ada might have” or “James and Ada could have” or “One might guess that they” and so on.  She has no idea how they met, how they lived, or what their relationship was like, so we get this very hazy picture of what might have been the case.  I got tired of reading about what might have or could have happened between them.  The only real information she had was about King’s professional life, but I got tired of reading about this, too.  King lived off his friend’s money, he spent as much time traveling and relaxing as working (which is why he was always broke), and he seemed a constant complainer.  Yet Sandweiss continues to quote others as saying how likeable, charming, and warm he was.  The problem is, we don’t ever see this.  The book is a classic example of telling rather than showing, so we never  get a true sense of either Clarence or Ada.  It’s also extremely repetitive.  She could have written the book in half the number of pages.  Better yet, this is a case where historical fiction would have made a much more compelling read than dry non-fiction.  (non-fiction)

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