The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020)

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This page turning novel pulled me in immediately as the twin Vignes sisters leave their small Louisiana town at age 16 seeking a life beyond cleaning houses for white people. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, the girls left in 1954; their story and their secrets span 50 years as we watch them go on to live separate lives. Their home town, the fictional Mallard, was founded by their great great great grandfather, enslaved and later freed by the father who once owned him. Mallard is a “light-skinned” town where each generation became lighter, a town where dark skin is absent and bigotry is alive and well.  It was to this place that the Vignes twins were born and raised and later fled; despite his light skin, their father was lynched, leaving their mother with a life of poverty and cleaning–a life the girls chose to leave behind.

Desiree, the rebel, and Stella, the rule follower, make their way to New Orleans to start over, but Stella discovers a way to truly redefine her life: passing. Meanwhile, abandoned Desiree is left to fend for herself, eventually marrying a successful man who becomes violent. Their paths diverged at age 17, and we are pulled along through their new lives, their marriages, and their children’s lives. At times, some of the plot elements seemed a bit unbelievable–a little too coincidental–but still interesting. One of the most compelling subplots is Jude’s (Desiree’s daughter) boyfriend, whose identity journey parallels the girls’ in some ways but also steers opposite of Stella’s journey: he find his true identity where Stella finds only a false one. His and Jude’s path is one of running toward something where Stella and her daughter, Kennedy, can only run away.

I first learned about passing in grad school (or college, I can’t remember) from Nella Larsen’s very fine book Passing, published in 1929. I think I’ll reread that, and I encourage anyone with interest to grab her seminal work showing how common racial passing was in the 1920s.

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