Book Review: The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900)

Helping my husband locate a book on an adjacent library shelf, I picked up this book and loved every page of The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932).

Because I’m a “multiple book reader” (usually four or more going at a time), it took me longer than it should have based on the writer’s ability to keep the reader’s interest.  The subject matter is, for me personally, a topic I’m drawn to because of an interest in the history of the South and of the African-American slaves.

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 but six years old.

The intricacies of the brother and sister’s attempt to “pass” is handled in a most compassionate way by Chestnutt.  His writing style is of another time and place, casting this book in the category I would call great literature.  Many readers today might not particularly care for the structure of the work itself, but it cannot be denied that Chestnutt has put to the page a most fascinating topic in a fascinating choice of language and style.

Finding this amazing piece of literature that has so long been hidden from view except as a classroom assignment was a superlative moment for me. I consider it tragic that more people have not been exposed to the subject matter or to Chesnutt’s writing style. After turning the last page, I held the book closely and said aloud, “I don’t want to return this one to the library!”

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