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Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line | [Martha A. Sandweiss]

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

Brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War, Clarence King was named by John Hay "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for 13 years he lived a double life - as the celebrated white explorer, geologist, and writer Clarence King and as a black Pullman porter and steelworker named James Todd.
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Publisher's Summary

Clarence King is a hero of 19th-century western history. Brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War, King was named by John Hay "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for 13 years he lived a double life - as the celebrated white explorer, geologist, and writer Clarence King and as a black Pullman porter and steelworker named James Todd. The fair, blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common-law wife, Ada King, only on his deathbed.

Martha A. Sandweiss, a noted historian of the American West, is the first writer to uncover the life that King tried so hard to conceal from the public eye. She reveals the complexity of a man who while publicly espousing a personal dream of a uniquely American "race," an amalgam of white and black, hid his love for his wife and their five biracial children. Passing Strange tells the dramatic tale of a family built along the fault lines of celebrity, class, and race - from the "Todd's" wedding in 1888 to the 1964 death of Ada, one of the last surviving Americans born into slavery, and finally to the legacy inherited by Clarence King's granddaughter, who married a white man and adopted a white child in order to spare her family the legacies of racism. A remarkable feat of research and reporting spanning the Civil War to the civil rights era, Passing Strange tells a uniquely American story of self-invention, love, deception, and race.

©2009 Martha Sandweiss; (P)2009 Tantor

What the Critics Say

"A delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue." (Publishers Weekly Starred Review)
"An intriguing look at long-held secrets." (Kirkus)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.5 (37 )
5 star
 (8)
4 star
 (17)
3 star
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2 star
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1 star
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3.3 (17 )
5 star
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4 star
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3 star
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2 star
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1 star
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Story
3.8 (19 )
5 star
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4 star
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3 star
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2 star
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Performance
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  •  
    C. Razza CT 06-18-12
    C. Razza CT 06-18-12
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Speculative History -- What happened to evidence?"

    This book is billed as history or biography, yet there is little evidence for many of the claims Sandweiss makes. Indeed, a significant portion of her sentences begin, "One might imagine," precisely because she is drawing broad conclusions from so little evidence. My confidence in the aptness of her conclusions is shaken by her interpretations of facts in evidence, which are often questionable. This book could have been a great pre-writing exercise for a novel she would have written, but should not have been marketed on its own.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Linda Lou Cave Creek, AZ USA 12-23-13
    Linda Lou Cave Creek, AZ USA 12-23-13 Member Since 2007

    Obsessive reader, 6-10 books a week, chosen from Member reviews. Fact & fiction, subjects from the Tudors to Tookie, Harlem to Hiroshima, Huey Long to Huey Newton.  In-depth fair reviews - from front to BLACK!!! 

    HELPFUL VOTES
    909
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    "SERIOUSLY?! THE ORIGINAL "JUNGLE FEVER"! YUCK!"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    NOTHING!!! This book never should have been written. I got the distinct feeling that Weiss didn't consult even one black expert on African-American and black history. I gotta ask - "Martha, do you even KNOW a black person? Have you SEEN one?"


    What was most disappointing about Martha A. Sandweiss’s story?

    Sandweiss took a minuscule bit of historical fact and wove an unsubstantiated work of fantasy. Then she had the audacity to label that mess "a love story". As a black person I am insulted. I could only read 1/2 of this crap - then it has taken me 8 months to be able review - nay, WARN - others.


    Would you be willing to try another one of Lorna Raver’s performances?

    Lorna Raver is one of my favorite narrators. It's a shame that her considerable talents are wasted here.


    What character would you cut from Passing Strange?

    The only characters in it: Ada Copeland AND Clarence King!


    Any additional comments?

    This is hardly a "love story". It is no more a "romance" than the Thomas Jefferson- Sally Hemings union. The difference is that Ada was a freed slave when her relationship with King began while Sally was born and died a slave; Ada was a grown woman woman while Sally was the victim of child rape; and Ada could have left King at any time while Sally was Jefferson's chattel with no more rights than his cattle and pigs. The blaring similarity is that both women were used sexually by powerful white men who wanted a "bit of strange" on the side as opposed to women of their own race.I don't believe for one minute that Ada Copeland was "surprised" upon King's death to learn that her husband was really a white man after decades of "common law marriage". There is nothing in the photos I've been able to find that would make anyone think King was a light-skinned black. Fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair were very common in our race in the decades after the Civil War due to more than a century of white slave owners raping, first, their African slaves, then later the stunning (by Caucasian standards) mulatto, quadroon and octoroon enslaved women - generation after generation. In fact, just 30 years ago, I gave birth to a pink-skinned baby with blond hair and sky blue eyes, looking just like his father - descended from Louisiana Créoles who had been free people of color since the 1700s. That's what we call a "jump back gene" birth. But there was the familiar caste to my son's skin and hair which it a tell-tale sign to our people. As my grandmother used to say about light-skinned people trying to pass "Us know we". White people were fooled, not us. Also, during the time Ada encountered King, light skin was prized by both blacks and whites. Not too many African-American men as "fair skinned" as King was perpetrating to be would have even looked at Ada Copeland who was as black as the ace of spades! Let's keep it real, people! King never legally married Copeland, never took a photo with her, never signed or co-signed a document for or with her, and didn't leave her and their four children a dime! Sure sounds like President Jefferson - a founding father of these United States (and original deadbeat baby daddy!) who penned the hypocritical words "ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL" while owning, exploiting, and raping such people. After keeping Sally Weiss "barefoot and pregnant all of her life, he didn't even free her before he died. I was very insulted by this book. If there was a real story here, especially one that had been hidden from history, I would not be as disturbed. While I don't like the trauma endured by my people, I accept it as being what it is: history! But, Martha Sandweiss is merely continuing the exploitation by creating this science fiction just to make a buck. Weiss is a good writer but seems to shy away from the massive amount of research involved in factual works. Instead, she chose to take a tiny kernel of truth (there's very little to document her account of the King-Copeland affair) and weave that kernel into some "Jungle Fever - I'm Down a With Da Swirl" fact-based account. She misleads her readers and insults black people, like we are too stupid to corroborate what "The Man" says. News Flash, Ms. Weiss: Black Americans have always been smart, intelligent, and inquisitive. These days we don't just take the word of "Mista Charley" as gospel. Please don't do this again.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    M CHICAGO, IL, United States 10-22-13
    M CHICAGO, IL, United States 10-22-13 Member Since 2012
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "SLOW."
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    This book is just slow. I'm 2/3 of the way through it, and it's been a whole lot about geology and expansionism, with not a lot about identity or race.


    Would you ever listen to anything by Martha A. Sandweiss again?

    no


    Which scene was your favorite?

    none


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    boredom


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Roy Beaumont, TX, United States 03-22-10
    Roy Beaumont, TX, United States 03-22-10 Member Since 2005
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Race and Identity"

    Well, I started with this book because I wanted to know about the relationship between Clarence King who was prominent and white and his secret, post-civil war marriage to a black woman.

    In particular, I wanted to better understand the identity issues (crisis?) that impelled King into this relationship and motivated it. This book yields up about all we can discern about King, but little is known about his wife. The book did not give me the insights I thought it might, but it certainly did not disappoint. I was well rewarded for the effort gathering much greater insight into the Civil War, slavary, race relationships, politics and all manner of information.

    Essentially the book falls into three sections. The first tells the story of King and his wife up to their meeting. Much of what we know about her is infered from history. The second describes what we know about their mneeting, wedding, and life together. It details the double life King was living and the problems he ran into. Finally, the book carries the life of King's widow and their children. In these passages we gain further insight into our society and how it guided King's wife.

    This book is well written, the reading is wonderful, and it is highly informative. Give is a try.

    5 of 7 people found this review helpful
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