Two Sisters, Two Separate Lives
The Vanishing Half
By: Britt Bennett
I pride myself on being an honest person. I am honest to a fault. I feel as if I need to run everything by everyone in my life because I never like to have secrets. When my children were little, I often overprepared them for everything. If they were going to have a shot at the doctor, I had to tell them in advance so that they were not taken by surprise. I realized as they got older that I actually made it worse because their entire day centered around the shot. But I knew that I wouldn’t want to be surprised once I was on the doctor’s table, finding out that I would be getting a shot. I felt that as their mother it was my job to be honest with them. This has turned out to be a double-edged sword, now that they are 7, 9, and 12, they don’t do well with surprises. They are not very spontaneous and they certainly would not do well with an unplanned event that they were not prepared for. Have I ruined them? I hope not, because honesty is one of the most important rules in our house. When someone lies, I take it as a personal affront. If I live my life honestly, I expect everyone else to do the same. This has been a hard thing for me to grasp as an adult as I have realized that not everyone lives their lives this way.
This week’s novel is centered around one big lie. The Vanishing Half is the story of twin girls from Mallard, Louisiana, and begins in the 1950s, during the height of the Civil Rights era and Jim Crow. Stella and Desiree Vignes are the descendants of their great-great-great- grandfather a freed slave whose mother was black and father was a white landowner. Mallard, a fictional town, is populated by light-skinned blacks, it is“a town for men who would never be accepted as white, but refused to be treated like Negroes.” As time went on, the skin of Mallard’s residents got lighter and lighter. In fact, Mallard discriminated against dark-skinned blacks, yet were not accepted by whites. Basically, the residents from this town would not be fully accepted anywhere but their own town.
When they were about 8 years old, Stella and Desiree witness a horrific act made against their father by white men and they never fully recover. Desiree remembers her father having skin “so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn over his arm to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him.” Even with his skin so light, the white racists came for him. At that moment both girls realize that they will have to leave Mallard, which they eventually do when they are 16 years old.
The twins are forced to drop out of high school the same year that they run away, and they have to work in a white family’s home in the neighboring town. It is while working in this white family’s home that Stella realizes that even though her skin looks white, she will never be white. She realizes then that she was robbed of her education and her life will be just like her mother’s, living among light-skinned blacks in Mallard, yet continuing to be treated as a black woman. While Desiree is the much more adventurous sister, Stella ultimately is the one that forces them to finally leave Mallard, because she knows that life will never get better for them there. The girls disappear in the middle of the night and move to New Orleans. Until they can get on their feet they sleep on a friend’s floor and get jobs at a laundromat. Because they identified themselves as black women they cannot get jobs in offices or jobs that pay them enough to support themselves. They realize that being on their own is not as easy as they thought but they are determined to make it work.
One day Stella sees an ad in the newspaper for a secretarial job at a department store. She knows she should apply as her secretarial skills are good enough to get the job, but she also knows, as a black woman, she will never get this job. Because both girls could easily pass for white, Stella applies for the job as a white woman. This had never occurred to Desiree but had always been something Stella thought about. She is immediately hired. The pay is good enough so that they can get an apartment and survive, but the outcome of this decision will ultimately change the course of their lives.
No one could have ever imagined that Stella would basically become white and live the life of a privileged white woman, while Desiree becomes blacker by marrying a very dark black man that her hometown of Mallard would never accept.
The story is told from the point of view of Stella, Desiree, Jude (Desiree’s very black daughter), and Kennedy (Stella’s very white, blond, and fair daughter). It’s the story of three generations of mother-daughter relationships.
As a mother, I understand the notion of wanting to keep your children from harm’s way. You want to shield them from anything too unpleasant. Adele, Stella and Desiree’s mother, tries to shield her twins from what happened to their father, never discussing it, going about life as if nothing ever happened. A generation later, Stella tries to shield her daughter from the lie that she has chosen to live; pretending that she is a white woman living in a white world. Stella wants Kennedy to have an easier life then she did; never wanting for anything and growing up in a life of privilege. Desiree tries to raise Jude in Mallard, but Jude is a dark-skinned black and never fully fits in with the town. She wants her to look beyond Mallard and eventually leave for a life of endless possibilities. All these mothers do their best and yet in many ways, all of them fail their daughters. They fail their daughters because shielding them from the truth just makes their problems even bigger, and escaping their past will continue to influence every decision they make in the future. I loved this story, and I think you will as well because it is one that will stay with you for a long time.
I never read Bennett’s first novel, The Mothers, which came out in 2016, but now I am tempted to go back and read it. The Vanishing Half has been picked up by HBO to be made into a limited series with Bennett as the executive producer. I am looking forward to watching it. Have a good weekend!
The Vanishing Half
By: Britt Bennett
Publication Date: June 2, 2020