Passing Strange

  • by Martha A. Sandweiss
  • Narrated by Lorna Raver
  • 14 hrs and 16 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

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.


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)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

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.
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- Roy

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.
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- C. Razza

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-24-2009
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio