The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein

What we expect out of a book is not often what we get. When a book surpasses our expectations, we are excited and giddy at the thought of a book that not only didn’t let us down, but impressed us. When a book doesn’t meet our expectations, there is a lot of complex emotions, but always a lingering question: is it the book’s fault, or mine?

I feel bad turning the review of this book into an existential question about book reviewing, but I can’t help it. The Invisible Line is a book that I was so excited to read, but unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy reading. But I also can’t say that it was entirely the fault of The Invisible Line.

Let’s talk about what The Invisible Line is: well-researched, a fascinating, worthy topic, and fairly readable. Essentially, Sharfstein traces the lives of three families that “pass” from black to white through the generations. Their descendants often aren’t even aware that they have black ancestors in their family line. Sometimes the process occurs over a generation, sometimes several. What I really gained from the experience of reading this book was the realization that what we think of as something so fixed, racial relations in the US before and after the Revolutionary war, was actually a lot more fluid. This book really did make me think and made me interested to read more, but I wish it had been more readable.

Those who like this book are probably shaking their heads at me, because Sharfsteins book reads more like a novel sometimes than a piece of history, but that was exactly my issue. In the same way that I wonder when I am reading historical fiction how much is true and how much is made up, I couldn’t get past some of the additions Sharfstein added to the narrative. Take this passage for example:

Gideon Gibson rode alone through the perpetual twilight of the woods on a Sunday. In the thick forests of the South Carolina backcountry, light hit the ground scattered and split, filtered through leaves and pine needles as through a cathedral’s stained glass. Sunbeams swirled with dust and gnats in the torpid August air. When Gibson reached his destination, one man was waiting for him, as agreed. In the open they would have taken shots at each other. But here they could meet quietly and alone, as equals and gentlemen. (13)

While I can appreciate the beauty of that passage, how, exactly, does Sharfstein know what the light looked like? He mentions in the Introduction that he relied on letters and historical accounts for much of his atmospheric information, but I just wasn’t convinced by it. I’m all for writing creatively and writing non-fiction in a way that is keeps people reading, but it was distracting for me. I would always wonder: where did that information come from? Sharfstein does address in his notes where he originally read about the physical details, but it seems odd coming from a very fiction-like omniscient narrator. That is not to say that I prefer completely cold, academic writing, but this way of infusing life into a book about history just isn’t for me.

The structure of the book did not work for me either. I kept getting confused by which family we were talking about and, try as I might, I could not keep the details straight. It made for frustrated reading when I was constantly going back and forth to try and figure out what had happened previously in the family’s history. I understand the inclusion of all three families, because their histories and their experiences with passing were so very different, but this book would have been much more manageable for me if it had focused on one of the families.

But these are, for the most part, personal hang-ups. I am not saying that I think Sharfstein’s book is bad, on the contrary, I think it is an interesting and valid addition to the books published on race. As an introduction to the topic, I’m not sure it was a good place to start, but it certainly got me interested in reading more about race relations in the US. His writing style is not for me, but there are plenty of people who do love this kind of writing.

I’m really interested to see what the rest of the reviewers on this tour think of The Invisible Line as I’m pretty confident that I will be in the minority here. It is a good book and if you are interested in this topic and already know something about it, I highly suggest you pick this up.

Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Previous stops on the tour: My American Melting Pot

Because I am confident that there are other people who would like this book a lot more than I did, I’d like to pass my copy on to another reader, so they can review it on their blog. If you are interested in reading and reviewing The Invisible Line, please leave a comment and I will randomly select a winner in one week.


11 thoughts on “The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein

  1. Lu, I think you thoughtfully express something we have all encountered at some point in our reading lives. I know that I have picked up many books certain that they are destined to become favorites only to find I do not connect with them at all. It’s always a struggle when you can see that a book has merits, but emotionally and subjectively, you just don’t care for it very much. I completely felt this way about The Master & Margarity by Mikhail Bulgakov – I could see that it had a lot to offer, I just didn’t respond to it in any real way.

  2. In the author’s defense, that is how light passes through leaves on a country road and he could have checked an almanac or some such record to find out what the whether was like on that particular day.

    I do read a lot of history. This sort of ‘creative writing’ is common and necessary if a book is to keep readers reading. I worry over more consequential matters. For example, invented conversation and records of thoughts and feelings. That’s why I have a problem with most historical fiction.

    1. That’s interesting. I feel as though I do read history sometimes, but the writing in this one bothered me more than it usually does. It’s not even that it was bad, so much as it just distracted me. I don’t think it’s a bad technique, but I couldn’t get into it. That’s why I tried to stress that it wasn’t so much a problem with The Invisible Line as it was a problem with me.

  3. This book sounds fascinating to me! Please include me in your random drawing. Thanks for your honest thoughts on the subject. This concept of “it’s not the book, it’s me” has been making the rounds lately, and I’m not sure where I fall exactly. There can be no universal experience of reading, there is never a single “right” answer, so why shouldn’t we not only expect but embrace those views that differ from the norm? I think you do a good job of articulating your issues as a personal preference, but it’s valid to disagree with a style, an opinion, a view, or a voice without feeling like you have to justify it as “just your opinion.”

    1. I’m careful about when I decide to clarify that it isn’t a fault of the book and instead a fault with me. It’s not about feeling guilty for having opinions, so much as I know that here the fault truly lies with me, not with the author or his subject matter.

  4. I hadn’t even heard of this book, but I totally know what you mean about slightly fictionalized “history” books — I never know how much to take at face value and how much to view through the lens of interpretation. I don’t need to be entered in the drawing — while I am sure this was an interesting book, I know I probably won’t get around to reading it and someone else surely will!

  5. No need to enter me, although this sounds kind of cool. It sounds like a fairly journalistic way of telling of the story, which can be fun if you know to expect it. When I start a book thinking it’s going to be a more academic approach, I find journalism-style writing really annoying.

  6. I know what you mean about not knowing for sure how to review a book like this – the mix of non-fiction and novelization is a tricky thing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on THE INVISIBLE LINE. It sounds like a book worth reading even though it wasn’t the best fit for you.

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