Passing for White

This novel is based on the true story of Ellen and William Craft, as told in their memoir. It is by and large a very faithful account of their journey from slavery into freedom. The reason for the change of names to the fictional Rosa and Benjamin of the novel may possibly be explained by the introduction of a theme of sexual abuse of Rosa by her white master, her subsequent pregnancy, loss of baby, implications for her marriage etc.

Rosa is the daughter of a slave and her white owner. She is remarkably fair skinned so can be ‘mistaken’ for white. She thinks of a very daring plot to escape from slavery with her husband. Although pregnant she disguises herself as a Southern gentleman, using consummate acting skills to convey their language, gestures, manners. She travels as a slave owner, accompanied by her slave – in fact her husband.

Their journey in 1848 from the deep South to England is fraught with danger at every stage. The risk of exposure, of recapture, of brutality is ever-present. The cruel reality of slavery and the desire for freedom are very well conveyed in simple, accurate and engaging language. Rosa as narrator is convincing.

Landman explains that in order to be true to historical reality she uses, albeit sparingly, the now taboo term ‘nigger’ in her text. I have some sympathy with her in this, but on balance feel it risks alienating the very readers to whom this triumphant story should speak most passionately and positively: young people who are not white and who may have experienced verbal racial abuse themselves.