... absorbing ... Luxenberg’s history contains so many surprises, absurdities and ironies that it would be a shame to spoil the final chapters by revealing which justice ended up on which side ... Along with the court cases and the three lovingly researched lives, Luxenberg devotes many lively and illuminating pages to race and politics in New Orleans. That’s a lot for one book. Still, the subtitle of 'Separate' is misleading. Only the last section is about Plessy, and the book is not the story of 'America’s journey from slavery to segregation' ... The subtitle is also misleading because separate and unequal extended far beyond transportation and accommodations to education, employment, health care, credit, housing and criminal justice ... Segregation is not one story but many. Luxenberg has written his with energy, elegance and a heart aching for a world without it.
Steve Luxenberg's storytelling mastery may be most evidenced by the fact that the big, sprawling swath of history he bites off in his new book... does not read like a big, sprawling, swath of history. The story feels neither distant nor lifeless, and Luxenberg's careful narrative choices creates a lucidity that saves save the book from ever feeling unwieldly, even at more than 600 pages. The story is briskly told — and that is impressive, in part because this is not a biography with the advantage of a single protagonist to focus the narrative and drive the action ... But Separate lands as intimate, perfectly interlocking portraits of some of the men and women who lived through the abolitionist- and Reconstruction-era maelstrom, and it is a dazzlingly well-reported chronicle of an important period in our history ... The book is full of detail so rich that these players insist on their own veracity ... Luxenberg repeatedly manages to tell us stories that capture both the hope and the hopelessness that has been central to America's long argument about race ... Separate is an eye-opening journey through some the darkest passages and haunting corridors of American history.
Luxenberg is a fine writer who tells this story in an engaging manner. To be sure, his apparent desire for novelistic effects sometimes gives the prose a purplish hue ... A more serious problem is the book’s structure, which undermines its narrative coherence. Most of Separate consists of alternating biographical chapters about Tourgée, Brown, Harlan and members of the Citizens’ Committee. This produces chronological confusion ... The biographical focus, moreover, leads to a relative neglect of the broader historical context. There is little discussion, for example, of the debates over the 14th Amendment when Congress approved it in 1866 or what exactly it was meant to accomplish ... The long biographical excursions are not only unnecessary but often of questionable relevance. They produce significant delay in getting to the actual case.