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The facts upon which this book is based are fairly simple. A caucasian man named Clarence King is descended from a wealthy family of importers from Newport RI. In his adulthood, he becomes quite well-known as an explorer and surveyor of the American West and associates with the upper echelon of high society, business, and government. He leads an exciting life and is a 19th century celebrity. However, during the last 15 years of his life he leads another life of anonymity as a black man named James Todd. Todd is married to a black woman named Ada Todd and has fathered five children. Sounds strange? Absolutely!
Essentially this story details King's life of deception, half-truths, and denial and looks at an ever changing climate where race is defined and redefined with each census. It is also a story of a family trying to lay claim to their birthright and presumed fortune.
I liked this book very much with one exception. The author concedes that there are many aspects to this story that are unknown or cannot be fully answered as James Todd, his family life and marriage were as blurred as the public life of Clarence King was known. For me, the gaps in knowledge about James and Ada Todd and the level of candor in their relationship is frustrating. So be forewarned, not everything covered in this book is easily explained or logical at times. This is a fascinating yet somewhat incomplete story which doesn't have easy or completely logical answers.
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on June 20, 2010
Through hagiographical works of admirers of Clarence King, much has been written about the white diminutive man who was the country's first director of the Geological Survey, who mapped the West after the Civil War, who dined with presidents, who exposed a diamond hoax in 1872, and who had even penned a short story--"The Helmet of Mambrino." But not much has been written about the hoax or sorts King played on the black woman he married just as the country was about to enter the mauve decade, until author Martha Sandweiss brings to life the roiling mind of King in her marvelous book--"Passing Strange."

Written in equal parts historical information and a storytelling narrative, the author expertly deconstructs King's dream of a "United States of the United Races." She weaves a plausible narrative of King being attracted to "dusky" women well before he married his wife, Ada, who knew him as James Todd. Before he met Ada, King's affinity for swarthy women apparently led him to cast aside his white persona, one that allowed him to be friends with such Brahmin luminaries as Henry Adams and John Hay, to go "slumming" in the black neighborhoods of New York.

The author allows the reader to witness the poseur King's internal struggle to love Ada, but to protect his white family and white friends from his black family. One quickly wanders whether King's dream of a race-blind society is all talk. He never revealed his true name to his wife until on his death bed.

For me, the story rises to a crescendo when the reader begins to see how King's widow fights to bring to life the fact that she was married to the notable King, a man who had a voluminous mind. With Ada's insuperable fight that ultimately lands her in court 30 years after King's death where she seeks money for a trust fund King promised her, she gains a measure of recognition that she was indeed married to King. But one wonders whether that recognition would ever have be good enough for King. What would he think of the fact that his dream of a raceless society never caught on with his children and grandchildren?

To borrow a phrase from the book, the author captured the zeitgeist of King's deception in the flask of her translucent storytelling.

The storytelling was good, but so too was the author's historical scholarship. She took an aspect of life for the King family, and weaved a plausible scenario with an historical event. For instance, the author recounts a time King may have worried about his family's safety while he was checking out some mines in the upper Columbia River region of the Pacific Northwest in mid-June because a landlord-tenant dispute near the King home had led to a fatal shooting in late May.

Some critiques focus on the fact that the author cannot plug the holes in many unanswered questions. I disagree with that because you can only work the information that is available. Of course the story would be a great novel, but I am glad it wasn't because I learned the truth based on all of the information the author possessed.

The book could have been tighter in places. There were a few times the author provided too much tangential information. For instance, while nice to know I suppose, but did the reader really need to know about the backgrounds of two of Ada's lawyers--Everett Waring and J. Douglas Whetmore? But the author is a historian!

After reading the book, I am left with wondering whether there was anything King could have done to tell his story beyond his grave. Since he never fully immersed himself in his utopian idea of a raceless society, perhaps he could have committed his true feelings and intentions to writing, with instructions to those who administered his estate to reveal his writings, say 20, 30, 50, or even 100 years (like Mark Twain) after his death.

All in all a good book, and I recommend it.
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on June 20, 2009
This story gripped my interest on many points. First I live in the Sierra Nevada, and the tales of King and King's tall tales I have always found fascinating. I really didn't know anything about his "double life".

Once I began reading this book I could understand how King could pull something like this off. He was elusive and engaging at the same time. His family history and their points of view also help to explain his curiosity with the black world, one that he found exotic and natural.

One reviewer was put off because much of the information was secondhand and conjecture. That is an interesting point of view, but I found just the opposite, I found it interesting and provocative. As the author tells us, much of Ada's story, as with those of most black families, cannot be based on recorded or documented history. Most did not read or write and during the time of slavery they did not even have family names, birth and marriage certificates were also none existent. Therefore most of their history is hearsay, handed down as stories. Martha Sandweiss, in my mind, did a great job of proclaiming fact from educated guess. The fact that assumptions were declared made the story more fascinating. We will never know exactly how Ada came to New York; we will not know the details of Clarence and Ada's meeting and their courtship. The author was careful, referring to history and the state of the black community at the time to draw possible scenarios. She took care not to state them as fact.

If you enjoy American history or the history of the West then you will find this book enthralling. Because I enjoy these things this book captured me from the first page. I know much of what was happening at the time, I knew many of the characters and the places from earlier readings. One of my favorite books is Ramona, a book that King read and romanticized. There was much I did not know about the South, the slave condition and the post emancipation period. I found the chapter, Becoming Ada, very interesting and the fact that so little is known about her is thought provoking.

Wow, what a book! Read it if you are taken by American history, a lover of the Sierra Nevada and its characters. If we demand only facts to support the characters and events in this book it would not have been written and that would be a shame.
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on December 12, 2011
The story of the marriage between Ada Copeland and Clarence King is a terrific tale, especially given the era and his prominence. King is a fascinating fellow and the information about him is very interesting. The information about Ada is quite sketchy in comparison, yet the author does a lot of surmising about where she might have worked, what she might have thought, how embarrassed she might have been, etc., to make up for it. There is a great deal of information about the state of race relations and inequality and a lot of it is laborious ruminating on what it might have been like to be a black maid in New York,etc., if that's what Ada was. I think it's important to remember how individuals managed to live through those times, and it's important to recognize those who overcame the obstacles to education and success. A lot of the discussion of "passing" in both directions was interesting, too. Clearly the author was painting a picture of the life of a black woman on her own in those times, but I found too much extraneous material and did a lot of skimming. There is an extensive bibliography and lots of footnotes so the book was obviously seriously researched, but it isn't necessary to put everything you found out in the library into your book. If you left out all the speculation it would have made an excellent long article in The Atlantic.
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on February 9, 2015
Martha Sandweiss has delightfully written one of the best researched American historical stories i have ever read !
The story of Clarence King, one of the most prominent Citizen of his day and his secret life with a Black woman and family in Brooklyn is nothing short of fascinating. Not only were his dearest an prominent friends deceived but he managed to convince his African American family that he was
a Porter on the rail road in spite of his light skin, blond balding hair line and blue eyes.
Ms. Sandweiss insightful views of the racial strive of the day seemed very on target and informative to me.
I would highly recommend this book!
G. Sterling Zinsmeyer
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on November 15, 2016
This book is a well told story of a major aspect of American history that is usually ignored, love across racial divides. This particular love is a breath of fresh air into American identity, or what race are we? In the midst of racial segregation is a love affair that has an unusual twist, or so it seems--but probably not so unusual as we think.
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on February 20, 2013
Another interesting piece of Americana - this dealing with life on the margins, romance and faithfulness (in my fashion) across the color line at a time when it was unthinkable for a white man of his class to choose to walk with his feet in both worlds. As written - interesting, detailed -- but is probably most valuable when considered as part of a collection of similar memoirs which are beginning to make their appearance. Taken together, they begin to paint a picture of the breadth and depth of African America -- and the cross racial stories that have long needed to be told.
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on July 13, 2013
I truly enjoyed the complexity King made of his life. The part that held my interest the most was the trial for recognition by his wife. The book is well written as far as it can be; however 80% of it is speculation. There are no documents other than love letters written by the protagonist tying his two worlds together so we have no idea about the true thoughts of King, Ada, their associates, family or friends. I think the story could have been 1/2 as long without losing any of the flavor of the lives involved.
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on December 10, 2014
This story has the potential to be an interesting tale, but the writer has managed to make it boring! You would have to try hard to do it, but she suceded. I think she tried to make it like a text book, with lots of footnotes. Really, wish someone else would write the same story in a different fashion.
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on October 6, 2012
This is a very good book and it really gives you an idea of how the different races lived during this heavily racial time in America. I had to read it for class and write a review. It wasn't my favorite book but I'd give it a second read maybe.

You can't help but to pity Clarence somewhat, but you want to be mad at him for what he put his family through. It really does make you think that if he had been born in a different time then he would've been at least able to be open about his relationship with Ada.
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