The Vanishing Half
By Brit Bennett
Read Dec 2020
Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins born in 1938 in a town called Mallard, LA. Although Mallard isn’t officially at town in government terms, the town certainly existed in the mind of its residents. It was founded in 1848 by their great-great-great-grandfather Alphonse Decuir who was the son of the white man who owned the sugarcane fields he inherited and the black woman that white man owned. He was light-skinned. His children were also light, their mother also being a mulatto. He created a town for “men like him”: those who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. By 1938 when the twins were born, the town was populated by fair skinned people, some blond, some red-head, most with wavy hair.
Desiree and Stella run away to New Orleans in 1954. Desiree wanted to escape the smallness of the town and especially its obsession with lightness. Stella had planned to become a math teacher at Mallard High. Her dreams ended when their mother told them they wouldn’t return to high school in the fall after they finished tenth grade. Their mother cleaned white ladies’ houses in the next town and needed them to contribute to her small income. Her husband had been dragged from the house one night when the twins were young and killed. After working the summer cleaning white people’s houses the girls left for New Orleans after the annual Founder’s Day picnic and made their way into the rest of the world.
The book starts in 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her “blue-black” daughter Jude, fleeing an abusive husband. Although she intended to stay in Mallard only for a short time, Jude was enrolled in and graduated from Mallard schools. By then Stella had gone her own way which was unknown to Desiree except that she thought she had “passed over” as white when she moved. We eventually learn that Stella had married her (white) boss (she had been his secretary), a successful businessman, and they had a daughter, Kennedy.
The first few book sections alternate between Desiree’s story, told in the present of 1968 and as she recalls her past, and Jude’s story in 1978 in California where she had accepted a track scholarship at UCLA. Eventually the story moves forward as the twins’ lives slowly converge as their daughters become aware of each other and Kennedy becomes aware of her mother’s past.
The author is generally quite graceful in presenting the conflicts in the lives of each twin and their daughters. Stella’s life filled with endless fear of being discovered and the weight of her lies to her husband and daughter. Jude befriends a group of people who are also hiding their true sexual identities and are actively living simultaneously in two worlds. Kennedy is portrayed as a spoiled brat of wealthy parents—indulgent father and cold and closed-off mother. Her path is complicated by her own lack of sufficient talent to “make it” in Hollywood/theater and by meeting Jude who says something to her in spite during a falling out they have. She eventually has her own lies to hide. Jude hides her knowledge of Stella’s current life to her mother as well as the reason she and her boyfriend haven’t married.
Although a focus of the book may be on the lies we tell to protect ourselves and those we love, that really isn’t the full picture. The question of the importance of race in determining how we relate to a person is the real heart of the matter. The twins’ father is murdered in the early 40’s. We know things like that happened. Stella’s upper class white neighborhood is “invaded” by a black TV star and his family in the late 1960s and they are persecuted with violent acts until they leave. We know things like that happened. The author partially shifts the focus of hidden identity in the 1980s to sexual identity to give us another example of prejudice in action. Jude’s mother is fine with her boyfriend being white; she just wants them to get married and provide her grandkids (and doesn’t know why she’s not getting them anytime soon). Stella says her complaint with Kennedy’s black boyfriend wasn’t his color but his pompous attitude driven by his education. The author leaves us with a scene of a black girl and her white transgender boyfriend hand in hand enjoying a swim in the “black” part of the local river. But what about now. Have we really become color blind? Does it matter if you have “black blood”—does that make you “black” and you must lie to say you are white if you choose to “pass”. This question remains unanswered by the author but one I anticipate she hopes we will seriously ponder and recognize and that we can own what we actually believe ourselves and decide whether it should change.