Race, culture & love in early America

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Sherry Meyer,
Milwaukie writer
Her blog, Found between the covers

Book Review of “The House Behind the Cedars” by Charles W. Chesnutt

Helping my husband locate a book on an adjacent library shelf, I saw this book and loved every page of “The House Behind the Cedars” by Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932). The subject matter, for me personally, is linked with my interest in Southern history and African-American slavery.

Chesnutt tackles the issue of “passing” in the post-Civil War South. “Passing” was the tradition among light-skinned or mulattos to pass for white, although ethnically they were considered to be Negroes.

The main characters in “The House Behind the Cedars” are brother and sister, John and Rena Walden. The novel is set in Patesville (most likely Fayetteville, NC). It is interesting to note that Chesnutt’s family moved to Fayetteville when he was small. This may have a great deal to do with setting. Chesnutt’s descriptions are clear and crisp. The reader can sense the house John and Rena grew up in, where their mother sits in the evening in the small town of Patesville.

The intricacies of the brother’s and sister’s attempt to “pass” is handled in a most compassionate way by Chestnutt. Delicacy is used in painting a portrait of Rena as she meets and falls in love with a white officer and makes her entrée into white society. Her brother, John, is an attorney having successfully established himself in the city. He is well thought of, and moving his sister near him is his effort to introduce her to his world and ensure her future.

Chestnutt’s writing style is of another time and place, using a language and style unfamiliar to today’s reader. However, I heartily recommend reading this book which I believe is a fine example of great literature. Some might at first feel uncomfortable with the language and structure of the work itself, but it cannot be denied that Chestnutt has put to the page a little known topic in a fascinating choice of language and style.

Finding this amazing piece of literature long hidden from view, except as a classroom assignment, was a high moment in my reading life. I consider it tragic that more people have not been exposed to the subject matter or to Chesnutt’s writing style.

On turning the last page, I held the book closely and said aloud, “I don’t want to return this one to the library!”