A Review of Two Novels on Race in America: Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

By S.A EdwardThursday, December 4, 2014.QuicksandThe novel is set in racially segregated America in the 1920s.  It is about a young woman, Helga Crane, whose Danish mother and black father died when she was a child. Helga has no links with her father’s family and most of her mother’s have rejected her because she is black.Helga’s loneliness and feelings of isolation force her to wear a veil of false-pride and vanity. The story begins with the 22 year old, discontented and disillusioned Helga, terminating her employment at Naxos, a Southern ‘negro’ boarding school where she has been teaching for almost two years, to return to her birthplace, Chicago. Helga’s internal sense of discomfort forces her to continue moving between different states and to travel as far as Denmark in search of a sense of belonging. Each time she begins to settle in one place, however, a sense of dissatisfaction re-emerges and she develops an urge to escape. PassingThis is  set in America in 1927. Irene Redfield and Claire Kendry have known each other since childhood, but drifted apart over the years. Both women are of black and white heritage, but their skin is light enough to enable them to ‘pass’ as white. Claire has taken this option, whilst Irene has not. Claire is married to an openly racist business man, John Bellew, and Irene, to Brian, a well established black doctor.     On a hot summer’s day, the two women run into each other. Despite Irene’s continuous resistance and warnings to Claire on the risk she would be taking by reconnecting with Irene and their old neighbourhood, the beautiful and determined Claire, manoeuvres her way into Irene’s life. Irene’s concern for Claire’s safety soon turns to resentment and she wants nothing more than for Claire to disappear. Quicksand and Passing have complex and emotionally loaded plots with deep psychological and political undertones. The vocabulary and writing style reflect the period in which they were written, making them even more interesting and intriguing reads. Both novels are short, but pacy and allow the reader get a taste of some of the injustices, pain and destruction suffered by people of colour living under America’s Jim Crow laws. ‘Quicksand’, by Nella Larsen, was first published in 1928 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ‘Passing’ was first published in 1929 by Alfred A Knopf, New York.  Both novels can be bought in one book, so you can two for the price of one! Nella Larsen also had three published short stories: ‘Freedom’, ‘The Wrong Man’, and ‘Sanctuary’. S. A. Edward is The New Black Magazine’s Books and Literature Editor. She blogs at http://www.saedward.com

A Review of Two Novels on Race in America: Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’

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