"Passing Through" is about the failure of a mid-20th century "American dream" -- in this case, to be white and middle class, with a professional husband, a comfortable home and similar friends. Leah Palmer, fair-skinned enough to "pass," grows up in a convent school away from her ghetto home, marries a white doctor and returns to his east Texas home town in 1959. There she is slowly being accepted by his friends until one of them guesses she is black. When the friend decides to blackmail her, she plots his murder, and her carefully built world begins to crumble. At the same time, racial tensions in the town increase, threatening violence and reprisal.
Despite a promising, dramatic plot, Jackson's story has a remote, dated quality and predictable characters that undercut its impact. The "American dream" that Leah's new acquaintances personify is, of course, rotten. Her husband, Jennings, is a provincial, conventional doctor a la Sinclair Lewis, not unkind but content with a superficial, safe relationship with his wife and the world. His friend Joe Billy delights in manipulating people, setting up a love affair between his social-climber wife and their groundskeeper, growing rich as a lawyer in phony personal-injury suits. Coy Moseley, last of an influential Texas family, deals in bootleg liquor to support his discontented and insincere wife.
Who would struggle to be accepted by such people? Yet Leah is willing to commit murder rather than be exposed as a black and lose her position in this shallow, narrow, joyless society. Although it brings her little pleasure, she can imagine nothing better. Misery is her lot; "it was how she had lived since she was born; it was how everybody lived." She is suspicious of every success, reminding herself "that every time in her life when things looked good, she had always known, 'I'll soon have to pay.'"
There is something desperate about her -- stubborn, determined, but passive, almost sullen.
Jackson's book is well-intentioned, but it fails to hammer home the despair of Leah's character -- the loneliness and fear of belonging to no group, black or white; the eroding effects of bitterness and repressed anger on personal happiness and society as a whole. Certainly these issues are raised, but they are eclipsed by an apocalyptic ending that absolves Leah of responsibility for the consequences of her actions. Rather than the mature, deliberate development of a complex character coming to terms with herself, we have a liberal's bend-over-backwards, sometimes sentimental view of the evils of racism.
"Passing Through" also suffers from reverse stereotyping. All the black characters are somehow sympathetic, excused for their carelessness or cruelty; among the whites only Jennings' cousin and his wife, back from California, show sensitivity. The others are uniformly self-centered, disloyal even to family and friends. Leah's mysterious attraction for the mulatto Perry unintentionally perpetuates the myth of a heightened black sexuality. She acknowledges this passion as she fingers an amulet inscribed, "This above all . . . " Being true to herself has been reduced to the symbol of physical union with a man as light-skinned and ambivalent as herself. Ultimately Leah has little more understanding of her blackness, of her part in a black community, than she had when the book began.