Check It Out: Passing Strange

Jan 19, 2016

Today, I’m recommending a captivating work of nonfiction called Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss. This work tells the true—however improbable—tale of the secret double life led by noted explorer and geologist Clarence King.

Other authors have chronicled the life of Clarence King, a hero of nineteenth century American history, but none have dug so deeply into his private life. Sandweiss, a noted historian, is the detective, who through rigorous research and use of letters, newspaper accounts, and interviews, has pieced together his extraordinary story. Part biography, part social and intellectual history, she has created a page turning work of nonfiction that will appeal to fiction and nonfiction readers alike.

Known as a brilliant scientist, witty conversationalist, and as the man who mapped the West, Clarence King grew up in a life of privilege in New England. He had access to the best of everything. He attended the best schools, learned from the best teachers, and never wanted for a thing. However, nothing could quench his thirst for adventure and exploration. Sandweiss notes that Clarence King went through life “tempted by risk and attracted to the exotic but fearful of losing the social prerogatives that defined his place in the world”.

For thirteen years, King lived his double life—as the celebrated white explorer, geologist, and writer Clarence King, and as a black Pullman porter and steel worker named James Todd. At a time when it was beneficial for many light-skinned African Americans to try and pass for white to seize the privileges of white America, Clarence King did the exact opposite. He crossed the racial divide in reverse, claiming African ancestry, when he had none at all. King lied in order to marry and build a life with the woman he loved, while saving himself from the potential ruin of an interracial marriage.

Passing Strange combines remarkable detective work, riveting storytelling, and the enduring question of race to fashion a most uncommon but enthralling family saga. Check out this title and others like it at the Sioux City Public Library.