and help you understand
Prejudice comes to Mallard
I’m guessing the novel, The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, will intrigue you and change you. It certainly did me.
The Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town established on land given to their great, great, great grandfather when he was released from slavery by his white father after the Civil War. The ancestral founder of Mallard hoped that the town would be a place for all light-skinned blacks like himself. Over subsequent generations, the people of Mallard got lighter and lighter skinned, “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream” because “in Mallard, nobody married dark.”
By the late 1940s, Stella and Desiree, are born, twin girls who fit into this light-skinned community perfectly, ideal specimens with “creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair,” of what their ancestor envisioned.
In a kind of reverse bias, as years go by, the town of Mallard begins to be prejudiced toward dark-skinned blacks. Throughout the book, readers are shown how prejudice takes root based on the idea that people should look a certain way. Ironic, since the community is made of blacks who have suffered racial prejudice themselves.
The main storyline
Stella and Desiree's father was killed in a vicious attack by white men, a memory that haunts both of them for the rest of their lives. Their mother is a hard worker, barely surviving by cleaning white people’s houses, and taking the girls out of school at the age of sixteen so they can work and help provide income.
The twins want nothing more than to escape from this little town, and in the early 1950s, they run away to New Orleans. But soon, their closely-intertwined lives unravel and pull apart. Stella “passes” as white, landing a high-level secretarial job. Eventually, Stella marries a prominent white attorney (who believes she’s white) and moves to California, completely cutting ties with Desiree. Over the next thirty years, she gives birth to a beautiful, golden-haired daughter named Kennedy who is making her way as a budding actress. Stella is living the “good life,” in a ritzy neighborhood where people get riled up when a black family moves in, and every minute of her life, she’s afraid of being “found out.”
In the meantime, Desiree has married an ebony, blue-black man, who turns out to be abusive. Desiree, devastated by the “loss” of her twin sister and the wreck of her marriage, decides to return to Mallard and her mother, bringing her young daughter, Jude, with her. Jude, like her father, has ultra-black skin and is subsequently ostracized by the other kids because she doesn’t fit in. As soon as it’s possible, Jude, like her mother before her, escapes Mallard. She heads to California on a track scholarship.
Of course, the two separate worlds of Stella and Desiree collide when Jude sees Stella in California, the mirror image of her own mother. She eventually meets the golden-haired cousin, Kennedy, and secrets are bound to come out.
What reviewers say
Multiple people have complained that the coincidences that move the plot of The Vanishing Half forward are unbelievable. Maureen Corrigan, a critic for NPR said the novel was “brazenly improbable,” a strain on credibility at the very least.
Although I know that “passing” was occasionally done by slaves trying to escape to the North, I had a hard time believing that Stella could “pass” so completely for years that no one, not even her husband, questioned her background, even though she absolutely refused to talk about it. I didn’t mind the coincidence that two people unexpectedly discovered each other, as Jude did when she spotted Stella at a party in California. After all, many of us have experienced weird coincidences of running into childhood friends or acquaintances on trips to faraway places, but apparently, that kind of luck bothered many people who read the book.
Despite the fact that reviewers think the events of the novel are somewhat contrived, they are applauding the depth of feeling and the power of the storylines to reveal the human condition. Heller McAlpin, in NPR, says that the author Brit Bennett explores
the unanticipated consequences of life-changing decisions, the insidious tolls of racial bigotry and passing, the frustration of inscrutable mothers, the differences between acting and lying. Her characters are forever calculating what’s lost and what’s gained at each turn, what vanishes and what remains. They ponder how some people can be two different people in one lifetime or even one hour, transforming from one sex to another, from loving husband to vicious wife-beater, from black to white.
The novel does, indeed, make you think about identity. About connections. About appearances and prejudices and the way people evolve. The book is saturated with connections between the past and the present. It’s filled with implications of the conscious decisions we make about who we want to be. Gender, race, and people’s reactions to those things are all brought into question when reading Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.
Helping me understand
The story of the Vignes twins was paralleled with another story of identity and relationships in the book. Reese was born a female named “Teresa,” but all his life he identified as male. He’s now chosen to hide his gender and be who he wants to be, taking every step possible to make his maleness real.
Because I had read The Vanishing Half and had gained some insight as to how and why Reese identified as male even though he was born female — an experience I know nothing about — I was better prepared when my friend leaned over and quietly said, you know my grandson? He’s now a she and he’s going to be a bridesmaid in his sister’s wedding.
I gained some small understanding that I had not had before by reading The Vanishing Half (an apropos title in oh-so-many ways!) that hit the issue of sexual identity as well as racial identity and the roles we play in relationships.
Did I fall in love with any characters in the book?
No. Rather, I felt like I was watching them, observing their story from afar, possibly because it was written in third person. But even without truly liking the characters, I was intrigued by them, and my understanding of the world was broadened and enriched.
Isn’t that the whole point of reading?
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